The Long Grind Begins

added 3/1/2001 by John Lauck

When he was a broadcaster for the Astros and needed to put some troublesome period for the ballclub in a broad perspective, Larry Dierker used to say of the major league baseball season that it was, more than anything else, long. Friends, ready or not, the long grind is once again upon us.

March 2nd's game with the Dodgers at Vero Beach is the first of 193 games Houston is scheduled to play from now through the end of September. Even if we acknowledge--as we should--that playing professional baseball is simply extraordinary fun for well over half of the men who play it, the undeniable fact remains that the schedule is an endurance contest of the highest order. Not every game, in the spring or the summer, will be a life or death matter (with the exception of those played against the Dodgers, the Reds, the Mets, and the Jesus-Christ-I-hate-'em Braves). Some would say that the games played during Spring Training matter least of all. Joe Morgan recently authored a web article in which he maintained that "Spring's not the thing"; a ballplayer should, he says, use Spring Training to get ready for the regular season.

Yet, as unquestionably wise and experienced as Morgan is about baseball, even he knows that Spring Training games are valuable to some extent, and that unless some players play well in those games, they will have no major league regular season for which to get ready. Who might some of those players be for the Astros in 2001, and what might we see on the ballclub as a whole as the exhibition season unfolds?

First on my short list of players whom I believe must perform well this spring is Jose Lima. As I've already fretted over on Astroday, Lima's propensity to give up home runs in bunches has carried over from 2000, and there is no solution to his problem in sight. Intrasquad games or not, Dierker and Hunsicker cannot be pleased with three home runs allowed in two appearances against his own mates. It was commonly understood when Hunsicker acquired Kent Bottenfield over the winter that he did so to cover for Shane Reynolds in the rotation until Reynolds returns. The thought occurred to me then, however, and it occurs to me now, that Bottenfield was acquired to cover for another possible Lima collapse just as much. Granted, Lima has the big contract; granted, he's a fan favorite; granted he has a great competitive spirit and two very good seasons as an Astros' starting pitcher behind him. Nevertheless, if Lima cannot pitch decently this spring, he may find himself pushed out of the rotation as soon as mid-April, particularly if Bottenfield pitches well in place of Reynolds. If Lima is dropped from the rotation at some point, then both he and the team may have a problem. Unlike Bottenfield, Lima is not suited to relief; the Astros learned that much about him back in 1997. To my way of thinking, Lima is not merely pitching this spring to regain his confidence; he's pitching this spring to maintain a spot on the ballclub, period. The Astros are developing too many alternatives from whom Dierker could choose--Bottenfield, Tony McKnight, Roy Oswalt--to allow Lima to suffer very long on the mound if he struggles this year as he did last.

Daryle Ward must also have a good Spring Training--not just for the Astros' sake, but for his own. His place on the Opening Day roster is secure, I believe, but by his own assessment and Hunsicker's he is clearly behind Lance Berkman in his development as a player after once being well ahead of him. Ward had a poor winter ball season, but he has reported to camp in good shape and he has by all accounts been working hard. If Berkman continues to improve his overall game, Ward may actually get less playing time this year but, as Dierker was quick to point out once camp opened up, Ward will be first off the bench to fill in for Jeff Bagwell and to replace Moises Alou if Alou becomes injured. Despite being relegated to the less glamorous role of a bench player after once being projected as a starter, Ward is still going to get his playing time. Let's hope he's ready for it.

It's been said at least a couple of times this spring that Wayne Franklin is nearly a lock to make the bullpen by April 3, first, because he's a left-hander and second, because he's out of options. That may be so, but I am not convinced of it. It would be very pleasant to have a left-handed set-up man around, but if the one left-hander the Astros already have returns to form this year, they can do without an ineffectual Franklin. If he wants a spot on the twenty-five man roster, he'll have to earn it.

Over at third, Chris Truby must show that he can continue to hit big league pitching with power, and he must improve his ability to draw walks, as well. Although his spot on the roster is not in jeopardy unless he has a hitless spring, as with Lima, the Astros have developed too many alternatives at third base--Bill Spiers, Charlie Hayes, and Morgan Ensberg--to tolerate Truby for long if he should struggle.

There are other players that will be worth watching just to see what they can do this spring: Keith Ginter, Aaron McNeal, and Wilfredo Rodriguez head the list, but Tim Redding is also slated to pitch in the exhibition opener. Not one of these men is considered crucial to the Astros' success in 2001, but some of them or all of them may play large roles in shaping Houston teams of the near future, either as performers or as trade bait in future deals.

What can we expect to see from the Astros in the pre-season? First and foremost, I think, more intensity in the field than has been usual in recent Spring Trainings with the Astros. A renewed emphasis on making fundamental baseball plays should lead to better defense behind the pitchers. It might also lead, as Dierker hopes it will, to a team more willing to sacrifice runners into scoring position when the occasion demands it. From the pitchers, we should see a re-dedication to hitting particular spots and throwing inside on hitters, rather than simply throwing a fastball or curve because it happens to be one's best pitch. I might offer here, however, a strong note of caution regarding all the Astros' pitchers: what happens in Kissimmee from now until the end of the month is not necessarily what will happen when the team returns to Enron. Both players and fans have had only one season's worth of observation at the new park, but those observations, coupled with a basic understanding of the laws of physics, tell me that Lima could have a brilliant spring and still be the same ludicrously hittable pitcher he was last year. Don't believe me? Go check Chris Holt's numbers from last spring, and then remember what he was like once the regular season started.

We could see, I think, Julio Lugo log a fair amount of playing time in center field. Glen Barker is, of course, a perfectly adequate replacement defensively for Richard Hidalgo over the short term, but everyone acknowledges the Astros will be in serious trouble offensively if Hidalgo goes down for an extended time. Unless the club is willing to tolerate the drop-off at the plate when and if Barker is in there, the only other alternative the club has to replace Hidalgo short of going out and trading for an outfielder is to put Lugo out there in center and see if he can handle the job in an emergency. We could see Keith Ginter get some time over at third base as part of an experiment to open up a future roster spot for him or to showcase him for a possible trade down the road.

We will definitely see the Astros get clocked at least once by the Cleveland Indians 18-5 or 20-2 or some other godawful score, and we will once again see the Kansas City Royals play like the best team in baseball against our heroes. When those games happen--and they will--remember that the point of the exercise in spring is not just to win, but to get one's work in. As long as the pitchers throw their innings, the infielders take their grounders, and the outfielders shag their fly balls, the team will, in all probability, take the shape it's meant to take regardless of the outcome of most of the games.

Admitting all these realistic facts, however, does not close the door on hoping for something even more, nor should it. If Spring Training teaches us anything, it teaches us to hope, to acknowledge that the improbable can and does happen. Whether it's an obscure catcher named Tony Eusebio hitting his way on to the ballclub, or a young pitcher like a Tom Griffin or a Roy Oswalt compelling us to take notice of him long before we thought we should, these 31 games to come are more than just an exercise. They are a preparation for the long road ahead. The laughter and easy cameraderie they foster among players and fans alike revive us after a long winter of worrying about the sport's most vexing problems. These games remind us, just at the point when we most need reminding, that whether the game earns us millions of dollars or none at all, it is played for no other fundamental reason than the simple joy we feel when we run and jump and throw a ball, hit it and catch it, and revel in the scent of new-mown grass under our feet. Baseball not only engages our bodies and minds as few other sports ever do, it also, like spring itself, re-connects us to the long cycle of the natural world, and brings us closer to the sources of our very being.