Dotel Anybody, But Octavio's a Key Man

added 1/25/2001 by John Lauck
If the Astros are to rebound this season from their terrible 2000 campaign, everybody knows by now that the entire pitching staff, both starting and relief, will have to pull itself together and perform much more creditably than they did last year. Even 17-game winner Scott Elarton will have to try to succeed again knowing that his staff-leading ERA is likely to wind up near 4.83 once more, and Wade Miller will also have to improve on his 6-6 record knowing that he won't be able to do much to improve on his 5.14 ERA--not at home, anyway. Most media experts have pencilled in Elarton and Miller as the closest things to sure bets on the starting staff, and have focused so far on Jose Lima as a comeback candidate, figuring that Lima must regain his 20-win stature--or at least come close to it--if the Astros are to contend again. Doubtless, the experts are correct to some degree. Lima surely must have a season much closer to .500 than last year's 7-16 record, and he must provide 10-12 wins at a minimum if Houston is to jump back into the NL Central race. But with Shane Reynolds out at least until May (and perhaps longer) with a surgically-repaired knee, and Lima's ability to regain his control and composure pitching at home and on the road under serious question, Octavio Dotel may emerge as the most important man in the Astros' revamped starting rotation.

Dotel could be a key because he, among the Astros' starters, has stuff most similar to Elarton's. Elarton began to improve last year when he decided to cut loose with his fastball upstairs instead of aiming it as he did in his early starts in May. His curve balls kept most hitters off-stride and served as a very effective change-of-pace pitch to set up the fastball, and vice-versa. Dotel, on the other hand, struggled over most of his sixteen starts to develop an off-speed pitch to go with that fastball and hard slider he already has. Yet, an off-speed pitch of some kind is as necessary for him as it is for Elarton because without it, hitters will continue to be able to time his fastball and his slider and hit them out of the park. A lot of people last year thought that with Jose Lima teaching him, Dotel would be able to master a changeup pretty quickly, but such was not the case. The change is a "touch" pitch, not only in relation to the grip one uses for it, but also in relation to the arm speed one generates in throwing it. It has to look like a fastball, but not be one, and that's a very hard pitch to learn. Some guys never learn it. I, among others, was highly critical of Dotel in 2000 for not working hard enough on the change, and being unwilling to throw it in many game situations, but as long as he continues to practice an off-speed pitch of some type, I have resolved not to be as impatient this season. Chances are that we will see a slighly different Octavio Dotel this year than we saw last year. We'd better. He's not likely to have much success throwing a fastball-slider combination exclusively, but if he can develop an off-speed pitch of some kind that he is comfortable throwing, to go with his other stuff, he's capable of putting up 10-12 wins in the rotation.

Beyond developing that third pitch, Dotel must also develop more stamina. In many of his starts last year, Dotel simply ran out of gas around the fifth inning. There are several reasons for that phenomenon. One of them is his conditioning. If Larry Dierker truly does mean to be more demanding of his players in ST this year, I hope that means he will insist that Dotel do more running and cardiovascular work in the training room. Another reason is the lack of a third pitch just discussed. A fastball is easier to throw than a breaking pitch or a change-up, but if one relies on it as heavily as Dotel does, his stamina is bound to suffer. A final reason for the mid-game collapses Dotel suffered last year is more complex, perhaps, but no less compelling. The fifth inning is, by far, the most difficult innning for a starting pitcher to get through because it's that inning he must survive if he is to get credit for a win, and hitters know it, too. Starting pitchers will press in that inning more than in any other, and they fail a surprising amount of the time.The only way to learn to get past the fifth inning is to let game experience be your teacher, but being in tip-top shape and having several pitches to throw will also help.

Despite the several late-game homers he gave up in save situations last year, I thought Dotel handled himself extremely well out of the bullpen, and I caught more than one vision of what the Astros could be like out there with Dotel throwing from the right side and a recovered Billy Wagner gunning 'em from the left. That particular tandem, however, may never emerge. When Reynolds tore up a knee jogging in December, Hunsicker moved Dotel back into the rotation to join Elarton, Miller, Lima, and Kent Bottenfield. Even when Reynolds returns, Dotel is likely to stay in the rotation while Bottenfield goes out to the pen. Dotel has always wanted to be a starter, but it's up to him to show that he deserves to be one; it's not up to the club to justify how they wish to use him. Dierker and company will probably keep him in the rotation in order to keep him happy and promote peace in the clubhouse, but there are a couple of possible scenarios which could test their resolve pretty early in the season. One scenario is when Dotel himself struggles for wins, as he did last year, for the reasons I've mentioned. How long they would keep sending Dotel out there every fifth day is anybody's guess. Another scenario involves a failed comeback by either Billy Wagner or Mike Jackson. Bottenfield could help Brocail or--if he's around--Nelson Cruz with setup chores or long relief, but he's no closer. Roy Oswalt, too, is a gleam in the eye of many, but for him to jump up even to the Astros' bullpen--much less a starter's role--from AA is expecting what Oswalt is probably not yet ready to give. Houston has to have two solid closers to go to, especially at home. The club thinks they will have those closers, but until Wagner and Jackson begin getting people out, nothing is certain. If either man goes down, Dotel has to be ready and willing to step in to do the job.

That's asking a lot, of course, but one wouldn't ask Dotel to be a potential swing man if he didn't already have the talent to be one. His destiny probably is to be a starter but, given the Astros' current needs in the bullpen and his own problems as a starting pitcher last year, one would hope that he's done some thinking over the winter about how valuable a member of this staff he could be as a swing man. He could be to the Astros what Ramiro Mendoza has been to the Yankees over the last several years, and that should be valuable enough to satisfy anyone's ego, even Dotel's.

Dotel's obvious physical abilities and the questions surrounding how both he and the club wishes to use them are the reasons why I think he, more than Lima and more than Reynolds, may be the key figure in the recovery of the Astros' pitching staff in 2001. He has tremendous stuff, and it is to his credit that he put his personal desire to be a starting pitcher aside last year to help the beleaguered Houston bullpen when they needed him most. Like it or not, he could be called on to perform the same service at some point this year. I hope he will be willing to do it again. Whether he is or not, it is vital that Dotel mature as a pitcher this season, and give the Astros much more dependable work at the bottom of the rotation.