Life on the Farm
added 3/9/2001 by John Lauck
Last season was not a great one for the New Orleans Zephyrs. The team finished 68-74, and never did achieve the consistency of play that both management and fans hoped for. This year, however, with an infusion of talent from the AA Texas League champion Round Rock Express, the Zephyrs figure to be far more competitive in every aspect of the game.
Predictions of exactly who will and who will not be on a minor league team's roster are risky any time, but particularly so in the midst of Spring Training. A given minor league player's status may change unexpectedly, not only because of his performance in front of the big league coaches, but also because of injuries to players the big club was counting on, and because of management's shift in thinking about the type of player they need to carry on the big club's roster. Nevertheless, it is possible, even this early, to make some fairly accurate guesses about who we likely to see at the ballpark on Airline Drive this coming season.
The Zephyrs' most serious problem last season was a severely deficient offense. New Orleans had no power in the lineup to speak of, and displayed a frustrating inability to manufacture runs when they needed to. Neither element should be a problem this season. Regardless of how manager Tony Pena makes out his card, New Orleans will have some speed at the top of the order, and three guys in the middle of the lineup who can hit the daylights out of the ball.
Consider, if you will, the Zephyrs' projected infield of Scott Chapman at C, Morgan Ensberg at 3B, Adam Everett at SS, Keith Ginter at 2B, and Aaron McNeal over at 1B. Man, I'd pay good money to watch those guys play (and I will). Even if, as most observers expect, Chapman remains at AA most of the year and Raul Chavez and Frank Charles handle the lion's share of the catching, New Orleans' interior defense should be quite solid. The best excitement these guys can offer, though, will be at the plate, provided that we keep in mind the park in which New Orleans plays. Anybody who has ever watched a game at Zephyr Field knows it's quite difficult to hit homers there--the toughest park in the Pacific Coast League in that respect--so we can't expect Ginter or Ensberg or McNeal to match their power numbers of a year ago, but they'll hit a few, and find lots of gaps in center field and down the lines, as well. Their power should assert itself most fully on the road, where the Zephyrs were exceptionally vulnerable in 2000. If they do no more than produce perhaps three-fourths of their numbers of a season ago, the Zephyrs will still be a potent offensive team, and Hunsicker will gain a much better idea of how well these guys may fit into the Astros' future. Everett needs to work on his hitting some more, but he has a good eye at the plate and some speed to go with it. He'd be pretty effective hitting either second or eighth in the order. The infield should have more depth and more all-around ability on the bench than last year's team, with Pena being able to plug in men like David Matranga, Charley Carter, and Kevin Burns whenever the need arises.
New Orleans has reshaped its outfield this season, and the team should be better because of it. If he doesn't make the Astros as a reserve, Omar Ramirez will be patrolling center field again, but you may have noticed he's already spent some time this spring playing left field. That may mean that Scott Pose will be headed for New Orleans for the season. If so, his speed and major-league experience will be welcome. Orlando Merced may also decide to play for the Zephyrs again after doing a good job for them in the season's second half last year. I'm hopeful that at least one of these men will stick around to provide some high-quality depth. Eric Cole is likely to provide more power in the corner outfield spots than James Betzsold or Marc Sagmoen did last year, but it's reasonable to expect that he'll have more trouble hitting at Zephyr Field than he did at Dell Diamond. Barry Wesson is someone else I'll be keeping my eye on if he stays on the AAA roster, an event that appears to me to be unlikely. He did good work for Kissimmee last season.
As is the case with all AAA teams in spring training, the Zephyrs' pitching staff is in flux. Nineteen men are currently on the roster, and others currently pitching for the Astros in the exhibition season may affect the final shape of that staff deeply. Gone are veteran pitchers Kip Gross and Joe Slusarski, among others. What New Orleans may lack in experience on the mound, however, they'll make up with much greater raw talent. A starting rotation of Tony McKnight, Travis Driskill, Roy Oswalt, Brian Powell, and Jeriome Robertson should win 40-50 games, and the staff could get deeper if Wilfredo Rodriguez moves up from Round Rock at some point. I don't discount the possibility of a good contribution from Tom Shearn, either. The bullpen will have to be sorted out. Doug Sessions, Ricky Stone, and Brandon Puffer are being groomed as relievers, but only Stone has AAA experience. More help may eventually come from Greg Miller and Kyle Kessel, but that will depend on where these two valuable prospects are assigned after spring training and how quickly they continue to progress.
Last year, a lot of fans from Houston drove up to Round Rock to see the Express play. If the AA heroes of 2000--Ginter, Oswalt, Ensberg, and Cole--perform as well as they are capable, the Zephyrs could very well be worth a road trip to New Orleans this year. The new guys will be challenged by a major league-sized home park and opposition teams that have always stressed power hitting in the Pacific Coast League. Memphis, the St. Louis Cardinals' AAA affiliate, will be tough again, and the Iowa Cubs, the top farm club of the NL's Cubs, may be the surprise team of the PCL this year if the bevy of talent they've been grooming at AA breaks out as strongly in AAA as many scouts think it will.
But the Zephyrs will be able to hold their own against anyone, and the fans who come out to watch them will be treated to fine baseball played in a much more relaxed atmosphere than on the big league level. The team will play out its full schedule come hell (i.e., early August) or high water (i.e., late spring); a home rainout is a very rare thing, and the games are usually spiced by any number of promotional giveaways and fireworks displays on the weekends. Better still, the French Quarter is only fifteen minutes away.
The games are also marked by a couple of things I find charming. New Orleanians have an oddly-proprietary feeling about the Zephyrs. The fact that the Astros exist at all is a wonder to many of them, and the reality that the Zephyrs are the primary farm team of the Astros, a team whose roster must be raided from time to time, seems never to have sunk in, despite the long history of Louisiana support for Astros baseball. Around here, an ex-Astro is never an ex-Astro; he's an ex-Zephyr, and you'd better keep the distinction straight, mister.
Despite the unsettling split in their baseball psyches (or maybe it's just unsettling because I'm a native Houstonian and there's never been a question about where my baseball loyalties lie), the citizens here have embraced the franchise as it has made the transition from being a Milwaukee Brewers' farm team to one serving the Astros. It's easy to think of New Orleans as the Mardi Gras capitol of North America, but in its daily life it's far more socially conservative. As such, the fans have responded most warmly to guys like Daryle Ward, Adam Everett, and Mike Robertson--men who play the game well, but men who are humble enough to realize that the ability to play the game this well is a gift of the highest order. Men like that would play the game for next to nothing. That spirit, that willingness to play the game for free, is what sets minor-league ball apart from its big league counterpart. To be sure, there are those ex-big leaguers whose one thought is to make it back to the bigs, but that doesn't fully explain the zest with which a Robertson or a Kip Gross or a Marc Sagmoen would play night after night, knowing there was no big league career on the line for him, and never would be. The only thing that does is embedded in the old expression, "for the love of the game." To their everlasting credit, the people of New Orleans seem to have taken that expression to heart; in doing so, they have made life on the farm for this city boy more bearable than I ever thought it would be.