The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

added 12/12/2001 by John Lauck

When the Astros signed Brian L. Hunter recently, most of those who watch the club were disappointed, if not particularly surprised. In a single moment, Gerry Hunsicker dashed the hopes of fans who were longing for a trade to bring Houston the likes of Jose Cruz, Jr. or Carlos Beltran to roam center field.

Of course, Gerry Hunsicker wasn't likely to entertain thoughts of such a trade for the same reason he traded away one of the three best centerfielders in team history in 1999, Carl Everett: money. Whatever the cost of obtaining Cruz or Beltran might have been in assuming a contract or in players given up, that cost pales in comparison to the price by which Hunter could be had now.

Although Hunter played in only half of Philadelphia's games in 2001, his statistics are comparable to Cruz's in some respects: his batting average was only ten points lower than Cruz's (.264), and his on-base percentage was actually higher (.344 to .326). Where Cruz beats Hunter--where virtually every comparable player beats Hunter since his career began--is in slugging; in this case .530 to .359. When Hunter gets on base, however, he does manage to make something happen most of the time--14 steals last year and 255 stolen bases for his career. His stolen base ratio year-to-year is high, also. He's only been caught stealing 61 times in his career, which is excellent news for those of us whose memories of Glen Barker and Roger Cedeno are still fresh.

The ideal center field candidate for Houston's lineup offensively and defensively remains Carlos Beltran. You'll forgive me if I weep profusely for a moment at an opportunity lost by the Astros: a .306 batting average, a .362 on-base percentage, a .514 slugging percentage, 31 steals and only one caught stealing in 2001. Beltran racked up similar figures in 1999, too, but even so, Kansas City was still paying him under a million dollars a year this past season to play for them. Therein may lie one reason why the Astros or anybody else has yet to make a serious play for him. It is not what Beltran would cost Houston now that matters; rather, it is what he would cost Houston after a season or two of putting up tremendous numbers at Enron Field. Lance Berkman made $330,000 last season; Beltran made somewhere between $460,000 to $480,000 last season.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Brian Hunter either is or will be the equal of the center fielders the Astros could have had. He's not even the equal of any outfielder the Astros currently have, except in one facet of the game. But therein lies some potential confusion about exactly why Hunter was re-acquired. If it was to add speed to the ballclub, then the move makes sense. If Hunter holds to his statistical form, he'll be a good pinch-hitter for Houston, and he'll steal a lot more often than he gets caught, both of which statements are a lot more than we could say about Glen Barker's contributions to the Astros the last three seasons. Yet, I remind you that the Astros have dealt for top-flight pinch-hitters before (Dave Clark), so until Hunter proves his worth in that regard, I shall be terrified of another big management mistake. But we've also heard expressed Hunter's potential value to the Astros as adding speed to the top of the lineup, a possibility that concerns me even more than Hunter suddenly forgetting how to be a role player. "To the top of the lineup" clearly implies that Hunter would be considered a potential starter at some point. If that ever happens, the Astros would be in serious trouble. Certainly, Hunter is valuable enough to spot start, but in the event of a long-term injury to any of Houston's present starting outfielders, Hunter is not the solution to anything.

It would help immensely if Richard Hidalgo would lose ten to twenty pounds before Spring Training and thereby gain a valuable step in covering center field, not only at Enron but everywhere else. As far off his 2000 stats as Hidalgo was in 2001, he did not have a bad season; in fact, it was a good one. But even if we grant that 2000 was a career year for Hidalgo, it still showed us--and should have shown him--that he is capable of approaching those numbers every year for Houston, whether he actually reaches them or not. The Astros can live with Hidalgo in center field again in 2002 if he puts 2001 behind him and has a significantly better approach at the plate. The ideal place for him defensively, of course, is right field, but it is highly doubtful to me that, even with six additional years of major-league experience now under his belt, Brian Hunter could carry the load every day in center field.

And so, from my perspective, at least, the Astros still have not solved their defensive problem in center, nor the speed and contact problem they have at the top of the lineup. Brian Hunter is a good pickup for Houston if his job is to be a role player, as it appears he will be. But still, with both Beltran and Cruz available, I am disappointed that Hunter is apparently the best that Hunsicker thinks he can do. What I want--what most of us want--is imagination and aggressiveness out of Houston's front office, not continual cries of how impoverished the organization is. We can and should put most of the blame for those cries on Drayton McLane, whose low-ball, bargain-basement bidding style threatens to keep Houston perpetually away from ever occupying the NL's top spot even as the financial value of the franchise increases every year. The Astros are, figuratively speaking, inches away from being the very best club in the National League, but in terms of the passion and the intelligence and the will with which the ownership of the other top-flight teams in baseball--the Yankees, the Braves, the Mariners, the Cardinals--go about addressing their needs and sustaining the excellence of the franchise, they trail these other clubs by a light year.

While most of us, then, yearn for something better and something bolder out of the Astros as they seek to stay ahead of teams which are already better than they were a year ago, we get the acquisition of Brian Hunter, a player emblematic of Houston's committment to tinkering at the margins of the roster while keeping in place a salary structure that has forced or will force nearly every top-flight player who has played for the Astros since Drayton McLane's arrival to leave Houston in order to receive a contract commensurate with his worth.

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