added 3/22/2009 by Bob Hulsey
As the Houston Astros rebound from one of the worst spring trainings in the history of spring trainings, diehard fans have several reasons to keep hope alive.
First and foremost is that spring games don't count in the final standings. Sometimes, they say more about how many open jobs there are in camp than the level of talent in camp. If a player isn't certain about his employment, his emphasis will be about producing now and making the ballclub. If he knows his roster spot is reserved, his emphasis will be on getting his work in or experimenting with a new technique or even just not getting injured.
(Memo to Bud: Six weeks of spring training games is too many. I don't doubt there are some players who are already in shape and don't want to hang out in Florida another two weeks before playing a meaningful game. It reminds me of when the NFL used to schedule six weeks of pre-season games and that seemed to drag on forever. I'm sure this elongated camp has messed up the routines of some of the players.)
Important, too, is that some of the team's best players have been gone participating in the World Baseball Classic when they could have been in Kissimmee helping to win a few of the close games that were lost. Certainly, adding Roy Oswalt back to the rotation will be a key development.
The most noteworthy improvement may be the recent signing of Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez to catch. The perennial All-Star and Gold Glover lasted so long in free agency and was signed so cheaply because teams aren't really sure what they'll be getting from him. Is he still the high-average hitter he was with the Detroit Tigers or the slumping New York Yankee of the last two months of the 2008 season? Nobody knows.
The need for a good-hitting catcher was obvious though when none of the Astros backstops in camp could hit over .200 this spring. From that standpoint, having even the slumping Pudge is an upgrade from who was already there.
But there's more to Ivan Rodriguez than a batting average, whether it resembles Brad Ausmus' or Russell Martin's. Pudge reeks confidence and that confidence is bound to rub off on his pitchers even if he's far more familiar with American League hitters than National League hitters. Pudge, a fan favorite when he was with the Texas Rangers, somehow manages to be confident without being arrogant. Fans and teammates like that.
Someone who has experienced everything a baseball diamond offers has a calming effect when a pitcher is in a tight spot. He can get a pitcher to relax and trust him to call the shots. It's an immense help even to veteran pitchers to know his partner behind the plate has seen it all and believes in what his pitcher is throwing.
There are some that say that, of all of Rodriguez' strengths, handling a pitching staff is not one of them. I tend to disagree. True, the Rangers in Pudge's day were often poor ERA teams that were frequently engaged in slugging duels, not pitching duels, and Rodriguez, as the catcher, had to be responsible for some of the gopher balls served up by Texas pitchers.
However, he wet-nursed two very young pitching staffs in Florida and Detroit to league titles and delivered key hits when the situation called for them. No doubt, the 2003 Marlins and the 2006 Tigers had some very talented pitchers but they needed a steady hand to keep them focused and exude the confidence a young pitcher needs to endure his first pennant race or his first playoff run. Pudge delivered that. I can't imagine either team reaching the World Series with a less-established catcher behind the plate.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. "But, Bob, the Astros have a veteran pitching staff that won't need their hands held." Yes, our guys are old as dirt compared to the staffs Pudge worked with in Florida and Detroit. Perhaps they wouldn't need the veteran tutelage a Pudge Rodriguez offers.
But many Houston pitchers over the years swore by Ausmus, almost to the point of insisting he catch for them. And while the Astros are an old team on the mound, they each have insecurities. Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz need to know their arms will hold up to the rigors of a full season again. Brian Moehler needs to re-establish himself as a starting pitcher and not a mop-up pitcher. Wandy Rodriguez - who can figure? And Oswalt was probably the most insistent that Ausmus be his permanent catcher. Do you think he'd feel more confident throwing to Pudge or throwing to J.R. Towles?
So if the Astros rise from the ashes of a terrible spring to make some noise in the N.L. Central this year, don't overlook the likely contributions of Pudge Rodriguez, even if he hits in the .220s now instead of the .280s. While we await the blossoming of Towles or Jason Castro, Rodriguez is a heck of a place-holder until the new catchers are ready. Certainly the rings on his fingers and the trophies over his mantle lend credibility to Rodriguez' influence on the Astros for the coming year. Like E. F. Hutton, everyone will listen when Pudge speaks.