Conventional Wisdom?

added 2/11/2001 by Steve Cutchen

The Hot Stove season is finally coming to an end, with Spring Training right around the corner. All during the off season, we at Astros Daily have posted links to the various prognostications. So what is the consensus? And did they get it right?

Last Season - The Y2K Bug?

Who said there was no Y2K crisis. Certainly not Astros fans. So many things went wrong that it seemed the Y2K Astros must have been bitten by the Millennium bug.

Everett and Hampton

For many Astros fans, the slide started in the off season with the trade of Carl Everett to the Red Sox for Adam Everett and Greg Miller. The idea was to open salary room to sign Hampton by trading from an area of strength, the Astros outfield. But then Hampton announced that he would not sign an extension. So the Astros chance of retaining the best left-hander in team history quickly went to zero. This led to the trade of Hampton (and the unloading of Derek Bell) to the Mets for Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and Kyle Kessel. And it led to a misunderstanding by Astro fan that Drayton McLane was dumping salary to rake in the big bucks now that Enron Field was a reality. Even in hindsight, trading Hampton was the right move. Keeping Mike just for 2000, with nothing but a 1st round draft choice in return would have been a mistake. Mike certainly would not have helped the Astros get to the playoffs in 2000, not with all of the other woes the team faced. And it is obvious that even winning was not the key to his decision. He went for the biggest contract. So no way were we going to keep him. If you want to blame Gerry or Drayton, blame them for not knowing that Hampton would refuse to re-sign before pulling the trigger on the Everett deal.

Just Plain Bad Luck?

As the season started, we began to see the beginning of an awful stretch in close games. Expectations were that Billy Wagner would continue as one of the top closers in MLB. But instead, the Astros lost their first TWELVE one run games! That is an amazing stat. During the season, Dotel blew 5 saves that resulted in one run losses. Wagner blew 4, Valdes 2 and Cabrera 1. Chris Holt was 0-4 in one run games. For the year, the Astros were only outscored by 6 runs. Yet they finished 18 games under .500.

And during the season things got worse, with Wagner, Jay Powell, Craig Biggio and Shane Reynolds going down with season-ending injuries. And this does not count the injury to Jose Lima. Even though he played through the pain, I know his brain was hurt. And don't believe those that suggest that this was all an Enron Field illness. Lima was just as awful on the road as he was at Enron.

If you want to look for a scapegoat for Lima, and maybe for the pitching in general, I'll suggest Mitch Meluskey. I discussed this off-season's big trade in my last column, and I won't rehash it here, other than to recap. I showed how Lima's adjusted ERA with Mitch behind the plate was over 4 runs higher than with Tony Eusebio. Dale Robertson, in his Houston Chronicle column, recently supported my view of Meluskey as a receiver. He wrote this comment, gleaned from the players; "Almost to a man, the pitchers disliked Mitch Meluskey and questioned his decision-making behind the plate. " I also question his receiving mechanics and how they affected the plate umpires.

Rays of Hope

But even with all of this, there were bright spots.

Jeff Bagwell, Richard Hidalgo, Moises Alou and Lance Berkman had great seasons at the plate, with OPS totals of 1.039, 1.027, 1.039 and .949, respectively. For 2001, ESPN called this 3-4-5-6 lineup "devastating."

Bagwell set team records with 47 home runs and 152 runs scored. Jeff came within three RBI of his team record of 135 from 1997.

Hidalgo is actually second on the home run list now, with his 2000 total of 42 dingers, and he set a team record for extra base hits with 89.

Alou had the second highest batting average in club history, with his .355 trailing only Bagwell's MVP season of .368 in 1994. And he was in the hunt for the National League batting title for much of the year.

And Tony Eusebio had Astros fans' attention with his club-record 24 game hitting streak. This streak was actually longer in days than Joe Dimaggio's!

On the pitching side, there were few bright spots. But the twirling of Scott Elarton had to be one. And both Tony McKnight and Wade Miller showed that they are ready to contribute at the major league level.

After such an awful start of the season, the Astros actually began to play better ball after the All-Star break, as they posted a 42-33 record. This is the equivalent of a 90 win season, all with Reynolds, Biggio, Powell and Wagner still out. And Lima was still in his funk as well.

Finally, the Astros minor league system continued to show that we have one of the better farm systems in baseball. The Round Rock Express AA team celebrated their first season in new Dell Field with a Texas League championship.

Looking Ahead to 2001

2001 MVP results are in...

The performances of the MVP candidates for the 2001 Astros are already complete. Only the evaluation remains. You see, these candidates are the doctors that have put the Astros back together this off-season.

If the Astros ballplayers recover from injuries and post good numbers in 2001, the team will contend for the Central. Look at the list:

On the pitching side, Reynolds, Wagner, Powell, Doug Brocail, and Mike Jackson are coming off surgeries. Everyone but Reynolds is supposed to be ready for the start of Spring Training. But to have five pitchers that are supposed to be on the starting day roster coming off injury has to be a question mark.

Reports are that Wagner and Powell are throwing at 100%. But can they pitch at 100%? Newcomers Brocail and Jackson should be a big boost to the bullpen, adding experience and depth. Brocail's surgery was a minor cleanout of his elbow, nothing structural. An oil change and lube. So he should be good to go. Jackson is coming off shoulder surgery, but after sitting out an entire season he should also be ready. He has been throwing since October. Reynolds? He has said that his knee is responding faster than expected. He hopes to miss just a few starts.

As far as position players go, Biggio is the obvious recuperation poster boy. But Eusebio is also coming off injury to his shoulder. And will Hiladgo and Alou compete for full seasons?

Lima's "injury" is the big unknown. Can he get his mind right? The combination of Brad Ausmus behind the plate and off-season reflection should put Jose back on the winning track. But who knows for sure?

The one thing we DO know for sure is that following the Astros in Spring Training will be much more interesting than in most years past. As the answers develop to these injury questions, we will get real insight into what to expect from our Astros in 2001.

Position Players

The two open spots are third base and shortstop.

At third, the Conventional Wisdom is that Chris Truby will start, with Bill Spiers filling in as much as his back allows. I have to agree. The job is Truby's to lose. Charlie Hayes, who is signed to a minor league contract this off-season, is not a starter. Even when he was signed, Hunsicker said he was seen as a bench player. But Truby was awful in Winter ball. If Truby doesn't cut it, look to Morgan Ensberg as a possible call-up. Like Truby, Ensberg was a traditionally light hitter who showed unexpected power last year. He's also shown improvement defensively. He lead the Texas league in fielding percentage.

At short, Conventional Wisdom is mixed. ESPN and SportsWritersDirect expect Jose Vizcaino to start. But Baseball America and MajorLeagueBaseball give the nod to Julio Lugo. I'm in Lugo's camp. I like the idea of having Lugo's bat in the lineup, with Vizcaino able to come off the bench in a pinch-hitting role for a pitcher, entering the game as a late-inning defensive replacement. I see Vizcaino as the Glen Barker of the infield. Also expect Vizcaino and Lugo to get significant time at second, where Biggio is expecting to take more time off than usual as his knee heals.

The other key bench players will be outfielders Glen Barker and Daryle Ward, otherwise known as Lightning and Thunder. Expect Barker to continue to give Berkman a rest as a late inning defensive replacement. And look for Ward to get time in left as well as first. Assuming Bagwell takes any days off...

Starting Pitching

Not only should pitching be the most improved area of the team, it BETTER be. The locks in the starting rotation are Elarton, Reynolds and Lima. And remember that Reynolds is out for the first few weeks of the season. To have only three locks in the starting rotation is indicative of the unknowns with injuries and youth. Again it is worth noting, Spring Training will be a time for serious evaluation. Watch those box scores.

So who are the other three starters before Reynolds gets back? Kent Bottenfield is a lock, as is Wade Miller. But the fifth position could go to Octavio Dotel or Tony McKnight. A lot of the decision will be based on the performance of Wagner and Jackson in the closer role. Will Dotel be needed in the bullpen?

Conventional Wisdom is that McKnight will be the odd man out once Reynolds comes back. Then the final two slots will come down to Miller, Dotel and Bottenfield. SportsWritersDirect give the nod to Bottenfield and Dotel. Baseball America says Dotel is the lock, with Bottenfield and Miller a tossup. ESPN sends Dotel to the bully.

My call is the initial starting five will be Elarton, Lima, Miller, Dotel and Bottenfield. Dotel will start the season in Reynold's place unless McKnight burns down the barn. Otherwise, I expect Tony to find himself in New Orleans, based on Hunsicker's predisposition to hold young pitchers back; a philosophy I agree with, by the way. McKnight will be on the short leash for call up if starters go on the DL.

When Shane gets back, expect to see Dotel go to the long relief mode. Again, this is based on my perception of Hunsicker's philosophy. By all accounts, Dotel has not fully developed his changeup. And his stamina is still a question mark as well. I'd bet that Gerry will want him in the long relief / development role that Elarton had back in 1999.

Bottenfield's stamina may be interesting to watch as the season progresses. He has a history of falling off as the season wears on. So expect Dierker to watch his pitch counts. Especially if the bullpen shows the strength that is expected. I would not be surprised to see Kent go just 6 innings in a typical start, followed by Brocail or Dotel, with Jackson then setting up for Wagner. If the Astros bullpen does not come through and Bottenfield carries heavy pitch counts, expect to see Dotel and Bottenfield switch roles sometime during the season, with Kent going to long relief.

There are several young pitchers that have Astro Fan foaming at the mouth as possible additions to the big league team this Spring. I've mentioned Tony McKnight. There is also Roy Oswalt and Wilfredo Rodriguez. Both these guys will get work in Spring Training. But if the doctors have earned their MVPs as expected, these guys will not make the show.

The Bullpen

In the Astrodome, and with experienced pitchers, Dierker allowed his staff to average 6.2 innings per start. They were expected to work out of trouble, not be rescued from it. But this philosophy didn't work last year. Dierker admitted, "We let Enron bother us more than it we should." Larry and Gerry responded by putting together a better, more experienced bullpen.

The names to watch during Spring Training are Wagner, Brocail, Powell, and Jackson. If these guys are physically sound and contribute, the Astros will have a strong and experienced bullpen. Add whomever trickles down from the starting rotation. Then mix in possible additions Nelson Cruz, Scott Linebrink and Jose Cabrera. If the doctors have done their job, we could have one of the best bullpens in baseball.

The Business Side of Baseball

Not to be overlooked as a team comes into Spring Training is the effect of business. Remember how the Ken Griffey Jr. Watch tore Seattle apart? The Astros had the stage set for a similar debacle this year with Jeff Bagwell. But kudos to McLane. He opened the purse strings (contrary to the moaning of Astro Fan) and signed Jeff to a 5 year $85 million contract. Then he took care of Hidalgo as well. And extended Ausmus' contract. Of the key contributors, only Alou and Wagner are in the last year of their contracts.

Last year after the Hampton trade became necessary, Hunsicker was quick to point out that it was NOT a salary dump. He said that Drayton specifically told him that the money was available to sign players if warranted. The Astros did not find it warranted, and with last year the way it developed, I agree.

This off-season, the Astros have shown that their commitment is not empty. While there was no blockbuster trade for one of the big names, the team did add talent in the areas where it was needed. And they continue to resist the temptation to sign a 'name' for the sake of signing a name. Sure we could join the lemmings in pursuit of big-name, well-known players. But the value for the dollar is not there for the most part. And the risk is that you are turning the franchise into another Baltimore. I continue to be a strong supporter of Hunsicker and McLane and how they manage the talent on the Astros.

The Pitch

If nothing else, 2001 should be a very interesting year to be an Astros fan. The offense should still be there even with the departure of Meluskey. And the unknowns with all the guys coming off injuries will certainly keep the interest of those of us here at Astros Daily. You can expect that we'll have a lot to say as the season wears on and the inevitable roster moves are made. And we'll look for your comments on the Fan Forum as well.

Also, there are some interesting issues that go beyond the roster and team performance. With the unbalanced schedule, we will be playing proportionally more games against Central teams than against the other divisions. So perhaps the wildcard team will come from the Central.

The two series with Texas should be fun. Ron Hargrove, our Crossword Guru, will pit his beloved Rangers, with all of their overpriced talent, against our poor underpaid Astros. If you haven't been to The Ballpark in Arlington, I recommend it. Like Enron, it is a great place to watch baseball.

Also, there will be new stadiums in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. PNC Park and Miller Park. How will these play?

All in all, I am really psyched that Baseball Season is here.

God, I love the smell of Glovolium in the morning.

That's my Knuckleball.

Try to hit it.