Thunder Off The Bench

added 1/31/2001 by John Lauck

As a player for the Astros, there's one thing about Daryle Ward of which we can be certain: when he hits the ball, it goes a long way. In 2000, Ward smashed 20 homers in only 264 at-bats, several of them epic blasts into Enron's right field seats. Trouble is, for both Ward and the Astros' management, he needs to hit the ball far more often in 2001 in order to be considered successful. In those 264 at-bats, Ward garnered 68 hits, including the aforementioned 20 homers. He had ten doubles and two triples in the mix, leaving him only 36 other hits, all singles. His slugging percentage was a healthy .538, but his on base percentage was only .295, by far the lowest OBA of any Houston outfielder, trailing even Glen Barker, who had only 67 at-bats. That OBA figure must come up this season if Ward is to be as important to the Astros as many of us think he can be.

Ward does have, in fact, an excellent batting eye at the plate, and a sweet, level swing that reminds me a little of Danny Heep's when Heep played for Houston from 1979 to 1982, with this difference: Ward can actually hit. D.W. was fooled badly by pitches many times last year, however. His strikeout totals nearly doubled, from 31 in 1999 to 61 in 2000, although the number of his at-bats did not, from 150 ABs in 1999 to 264 ABs in 2000. The solution to Ward's problem, of course, is playing time. Ken Trahan, the play-by-play radio voice of the New Orleans Zephyrs, and a man who saw Ward play every game in AAA, commented last year while giving an Astros score that Ward could hit 40 homers for Houston if the Astros would just play him. I wish that things were that simple, but they are not, in at least two ways.

In order to get Ward the playing time he needs to develop fully as a hitter, the Astros have to play him somewhere in the field. He can play first base, but he's not going to do that this year unless he's a late-inning replacement for Jeff Bagwell, or unless--God forbid--Bagwell is injured for an extended period. As we know, Ward can also play left field and, in theory at least, he could do so regularly, giving him the everyday experience he needs as a hitter. Trouble is, as Ward gets that experience, his defensive weaknesses will also hurt the Astros in the field, negating most of his offensive contributions at the plate. He can catch any ball he can get to; he simply can't get to enough of them. The organization took a positive step with him earlier this off-season by giving him the chance to play winter ball with Santurce in Puerto Rico. Ward showed poorly, hitting only .219, with five homers. Gerry Hunsicker deflected criticism of Ward's performance--perhaps justifiably--by saying that many players, including experienced big leaguers, have trouble adjusting to the very different atmosphere and cultural surroundings of winter ball in contrast to the more familiar background of major-league ball in the U.S. The effort to get Ward more playing time in this way, then, may not have been successful, at least as far as his hitting is concerned. We might still hope, though, that Ward got enough time in the field down there so that he comes to spring training this season with a better glove, if only slightly better.

Yet, let's assume for the sake of argument that Ken Trahan's judgment is correct, that Ward would, if given the playing time, hit 40 homers for the Astros. After all, statistically speaking, he's halfway there. If we double his line from last year, we get 528 ABs, 40 homers and 94 RBI. Ward accomplished his true line, however, playing in 119 games--3/4 of the Astros' schedule. That fact, along with the projected 94 RBI--a low total, given 40 homers--makes me wonder just how productive Ward would be over a full season. There's no question he'd be a powerful home run hitter, but would he be able to give the Astros anything else--doubles, singles, about 20 more points on his batting average, and about thirty more RBI? That's what it's going to take--numbers like .280/40/120--for the Astros to justify playing Ward every day while living with his defensive weakness in the outfield. In my opinion, Ward probably won't be able to improve that much, although his career stats, on paper, suggest that he might be able to. He hit .273 in 64 games in 1999, and .258 last season, but he had to close with a rush in order to boost his average that high. He spent most of the year mired in the mediocre .240-.250 range. Even if Ward were to get major playing time, then, chances are that he would not be productive enough for Houston to justify the move for very long. Standing in the way of a true test of my assumptions about Ward, of course, is the imposing figure of Lance Berkman, who actually played in five fewer games than Ward in 2000, but got in 89 more at-bats. Eighty-nine more at-bats is a significant figure, but it's not all that much more than what Ward earned. Berkman had one more homer than Ward, twenty more RBI, and a batting average 39 points higher. My point is that while, yes, Ward needs more playing time, the key to his success is the same as it was for Berkman: to make the most of the at-bats he gets. Ward probably will never be able to displace Berkman in the lineup now unless Berkman gets injured, but he can be a fine asset off the bench. It's a different, more complex task than being a starter, but it may be a task especially difficult for Ward to perform.

Difficult because, unlike Glen Barker or Bill Spiers, Ward has no glove to fall back on. Except in game situations, it doesn't matter what Barker does at the plate, whether he gets a hit, a sacrifice, or makes an out, because he's one centerfield catch or, as a pinch-runner, one steal away from being useful to the club. Ward doesn't have those skills to offer. The only thing he really can do is hit. If we place his dream of being a starter to one side as an unlikely possibility, I nevertheless believe he can be a terrific pinch-hitter--as good as Denny Walling was, as good as Bill Spiers now is--but he has to want to be. Like Octavio Dotel in his possible role as a swing man in the Astros' rotation, Ward has to recognize how valuable that role can be, in fact how necessary it is, if the Astros are to succeed. At-bat per at-bat, inning per inning, Spiers is one of the most productive players the Astros have ever had. Ward, if he continues to study pitchers, if he is relentless in his batting cage work, can be that kind of player, too.

He will have to be, if he is to be of value to the Astros at all, because under present circumstances, he won't be a regular player for Houston or any other team unless he gets traded to an American League club in need of a designated hitter before the July 31 deadline. A trade like that could still happen, but Ward's lack of productivity in some offensive categories has put him in a Catch-22 situation. Rumor had it that Hunsicker tried to trade Ward during the Winter Meetings, but he found no takers, based on Ward's poor showing for Santurce and his spotty outfield play from last season. If Ward were to improve as a bench player this year, though--by cutting down on his strikeouts, by being a little more selective at the plate--he would merit a trade to the AL. Yet, in that event, the Astros would probably try to hold on to him because, as a fourth outfielder and backup to Bagwell, he'd be too valuable to trade.

So, we're back to where we started with Ward. His destiny with the Astros--not to be too Darth Vaderian about the destiny bit--is to be a bench player. That's not a bad thing. Every contending club has to have a cadre of players it can depend on to step in and do the job when necessary at the plate and in the field. Looking back over the history of the club at the relative lack of success Astros' pinch-hitters have had in delivering power off the bench until last year, Ward's main God-given ability as a baseball player--to hit the damn ball out of the park--will continue to be crucial to the Astros. He may get some competition in spring training from Orlando Merced, who played for the Zephyrs after mid-season last year and has been invited back to camp this year, but I'm not sure how much gas Merced has left in the tank. In the end, I think Ward will be able to fight off any challenge to his roster spot, but given his spotty winter ball showing, he will have to have a good spring training in order to do so. He needs a good spring training anyway. The at-bats he gets and the time he spends in the field, whether those things happen in an "A" game or a split-squad game, may be critical to him as he approaches his third season of development in the big leagues. The way he plays may also determine, in the final analysis, whether the Astros' projected bench of Spiers, Vizcaino, Hayes, Barker, and Ward turns out to be merely average, or the best bench the Astros have ever had and one of the best in the National League.