01/30/2003 12:36 pm ET
Astros Spring Training rundown
Questions swirl around Houston pitching staff
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
Spring Training preview
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Kent 'at peace' as an Astro
Osceola County Stadium
84-78, second in NL Central
2002 Hitting Leaders
(min. 200 at-bats)
Avg.: Jose Vizcaino, .303
OBP: Lance Berkman, .405
SLG: Berkman, .578
Runs: Berkman, 106
RBIs: Berkman, 128
Hits: Berkman, 169
2B: Craig Biggio, 36
3B: Geoff Blum, Richard Hidalgo, 4
HR: Berkman, 42
SB: Biggio, 16
2002 Pitching Leaders
(min. 30 IP)
IP: Roy Oswalt, 233.0
W: Oswalt, 19
L: Dave Mlicki, 10
Win %: Wade Miller, 15-4, .789
S: Billy Wagner, 35
ERA: Oswalt, 3.01
K: Oswalt, 208
K/9: Wagner, 10.5
WHIP: Oswalt, 1.19
Projected Starting Lineup
SS Julio Lugo
CF Craig Biggio
LF Lance Berkman
1B Jeff Bagwell
2B Jeff Kent
RF Richard Hidalgo
3B Geoff Blum
C Brad Ausmus
1. Roy Oswalt
2. Wade Miller
3. Shane Reynolds
4. Brian Moehler
5. Tim Redding, Jeriome Roberston, Pete Munro, Jared Fernandez, Jesus Sanchez or Kirk Saarloos
RH setup man: Octavio Dotel/Ricky Stone/Brandon Puffer/Brad Lidge
LH setup man: Jesus Sanchez/Roberston (if they don't make starting rotation)
Closer: Billy Wagner
Spring Cleaning: Five questions that need to be
1. How will Craig Biggio adapt to his new position in center field?
Contract issues aside, Biggio will need to utilize his time during Spring Training learning a new position -- one that will be even more demanding than his old job at second base. Biggio is no stranger to position changes -- in 1992, he moved from catcher to second base. However, at 37 years old and in the latter stages of his career, making such a drastic move might not be so easy. That said, if anyone can prove the critics wrong, it's the no-nonsense, workhorse and determined Biggio.
2. Now that he has had one more offseason of rehab, will Jeff
Bagwell return to his 40-homer, 100-plus RBI form?
Bagwell hit 31 homers and drove in 98 runs, but by Bagwell standards, 2002 was an off year. After a full offseason of rehab, Bagwell has progressed light years ahead of where was at this time last year. While his shoulder may never be back to 100 percent, he won't be throwing in pain as he did in '02.
3. How will Shane Reynolds bounce back from season-ending back
If the Astros are going to be serious contenders in '03, they need a strong showing from Reynolds, projected to be the No. 3 starter behind Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. Reynolds has a lot to prove and will play not only for pride, but also for up to $5.5 million in incentives to add to his $1 million base salary. The 34-year-old veteran has had back problems in parts of each of the last three seasons and will attempt to turn in his first full season since he threw 231 2/3 innings in 1999.
4. Can Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller turn in a third year as one of the
best one-two punches in baseball?
Since the beginning of the 2001 season, Oswalt and Miller are a combined 64-24, a .727 winning percentage. Only Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (90-24, .789) topped that over the same span of time. Oswalt fell one win short of the 20-win milestone in '02, while Miller's 15 wins matched his total from the previous year -- and that's including a seven-week stay on the disabled list. Assuming both are healthy in '03, this dominant duo could help carry the rest of the staff through any unexpected rough patches.
5. Will Julio Lugo finally prove himself as a bonafide big-league starting shortstop?
Lugo had started to silence critics last year when a Kerry Wood fastball broke his left arm and ended his season with six weeks to go. Lugo had taken up semi-permanent residency as the club's leadoff hitter after proving to manager Jimy Williams that it was not a mistake to move him up from the No. 8 hole. Lugo batted .261 over 88 games and committed just eight errors. After he was given a clean bill of health from team doctors, he played injury-free in the Dominican Winter League in December and January.
New Faces: Players acquired via trade or free agency
2B Jeff Kent -- The Astros pulled off the club's biggest free agent signing in decades when they landed Kent, who will take over at second base while Biggio moves to center. Adding Kent to a lineup with Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell immediately makes the heart of the Astros' order one of the best in the league. Detractors speculate that Kent might not be quite as good without Barry Bonds next to him in the lineup, but Berkman and Bagwell are also among the most feared hitters in the league. Last year, the Astros attempted to replace Vinny Castilla and Moises Alou with Morgan Ensberg and Daryle Ward. Kent, a veteran, former NL MVP and perennial All-Star, should make a difference in an offensive lineup that scored 98 fewer runs last year than it did in 2001.
RHP Brian Moehler -- The Astros are confident that the arm troubles that sidelined Moehler for most of the 2001 season are behind him. When healthy, he averages 193 innings and 31 starts per season and could provide a valuable veteran presence in a young Houston rotation.
INF Mark Loretta -- After arriving from Milwaukee via trade last August, Loretta made an immediate impact on the club and ended up with a .424 batting average -- including two homers and eight RBIs -- over 21 games. However, Loretta's desire to be a starter and the Astros' lack of room for him in the infield prompted Houston to decline offering Loretta arbitration. Loretta eventually signed with the San Diego Padres.
RHP Dave Mlicki -- Mlicki's overall numbers might not look so good on paper, but the right-hander did have a number of bright moments during his 1= year stay in Houston. The Astros acquired him from Detroit in a "change of scenery" trade in 2001 in exchange for Jose Lima, another mediocre pitcher with a huge contract. Mlicki certainly did more for the Astros than Lima did for the Tigers, who was given his unconditional release before the end of the '02 season. In January, Mlicki signed a one-year contract with the Brewers.
LHP Pedro Borbon -- As good as the left-handed Borbon was in retiring left-handed hitters, he never found that same success when facing right-handers. The club opted to let Borbon go, saying they'd rather have a pitcher who could get both out than sacrifice a bullpen spot for a one-dimensional pitcher. Borbon signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
OF Daryle Ward -- Daryle Ward isn't the only non-outfielder who tried his hand at a new position, but with the need to dump salary and make room for Craig Biggio, Ward was odd man out. Ward, a disappointment both offensively and defensively after winning a starting job in 2002, was traded to the Dodgers for right-handed pitching prospect Ruddy Lugo, Julio's kid brother.
RHP Nelson Cruz -- Combine a 4.48 ERA with public comments about your disdain for the skipper, and what do you get? A one-way ticket out of Houston. The right-hander, once considered the sleeper in the Doug Brocail-Brad Ausmus trade of 2000, will try his hand at Coors Field after being traded to the Rockies in December.
RHP Tom Gordon -- The Astros offered Gordon a couple million to return to Houston, but Gordon wanted to return to a closer's role. Ironically, he ended up signing for less money with a team that already has a closer -- the Chicago White Sox. Having "Flash" set up for Dotel and Wagner was a luxury in Houston but proved to be, as expected, short-lived.
RHP Doug Brocail -- He hasn't thrown in a real big-league game in two years, but after undergoing another surgery on his elbow late last season, the 35-year-old righty will sit out this year and make another attempt for a comeback in the future.
Returning from Injury
RHP Shane Reynolds -- The Astros veteran will make a run for Comeback Player of the Year when he returns to the rotation in '03. Reynolds' season was cut short when he had back surgery in mid-June last year. Having signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract earlier in the offeseason, the Astro lifer is ready to prove that his best years aren't behind him.
IF Julio Lugo -- Lugo was finally starting to impress critics as a legitimate leadoff hitter, adequate defensive shortstop and occasional offensive force when a Kerry Wood fastball broke his arm and ended his season with six weeks remaining in the campaign. Lugo headed to the Dominican to sharpen his skills with the Estrellas club in the Domincan Winter League. Unlike last year when he and Adam Everett battled for the starting job, this time it's Lugo's job to lose.
New Kids on the Block: Prospects to watch
LHP Jeriome Robertson -- The 2002 PCL Pitcher of the Year will have the opportunity to win a starting job on the big league level this year. Now that it appears Carlos Hernandez is out for the year, Robertson could have an edge as the lone lefty candidate. His biggest competition for the fifth starter's job will be Tim Redding, who lost that spot to Hernandez a year ago.
RHP Brad Lidge -- When healthy, Lidge provides a power arm that could be a good setup for Dotel and Wagner in the back end of the bullpen. Lidge's recent knee problems will restrict his running and conditioning program this spring, but his throwing should not be affected.
RHP Kirk Saarloos -- Saarloos will vie for a starting job and will have a chance to build on what he started during his short stay on the big league level in '02. The rookie right-hander was 6-7 with a 6.01 ERA over 17 starts for the Astros, but he showed flashes of dominance during his second of two callups on the Major League level. He threw a six-hit shutout at home versus the Pirates and combined with Pedro Borbon on a five-hit, 1-0 shutout over the Reds a month later. While he figures to fit in to the starting rotation in the future, Saarloos may land a spot in the bullpen this year.
On the Rebound
1B Jeff Bagwell -- The 2002-03 offseason finally gave Bagwell adequate time to properly rehab his right shoulder. Following the '01 season, he underwent a procedure to repair a torn labrum and was instructed to stay away from any physical activity for three months. After a rushed, abbreviated rehab, Bagwell had somewhat of an "off year," but still hit 31 homers and drove in 98 runs.
The source of Bagwell's difficulties in 2002 surrounded his throwing abilities, and he was forced to find new and innovative ways to transport the ball around the field. Such obstacles should not be an issue in '03, as Bagwell has recently said that while the shoulder may never be 100 percent again, it's more than 50 percent better than it was this time last year.
RF Richard Hidalgo -- The Astros will again cross their fingers that this is the year Hidalgo lives up to the lucrative four-year deal he signed before the start of the 2001 season. The 27-year-old right fielder failed to put up the stellar 2000 numbers that prompted the long-term contract, and manager Jimy Williams showed last year that he's not afraid to bench an unproductive player -- no matter how rich the contract. Last year, Hidalgo lost his starting job to Orlando Merced and could see more of the same if his numbers don't improve by the halfway point in '03.
C Gregg Zaun -- Zaun had his right elbow cleaned out immediately after the final game of the '02 season. He returns to the club with a healthier attitude -- he's eating better, exercising more and has replaced the "bigger is better" attitude with a more productive workout regimen.
The Bottom Line
While the most of the attention this spring will focus on Biggio and Kent, the real unanswered questions surround the pitching staff. The Astros need to establish a fifth starter and decide who goes into the rotation, who goes to the bullpen and who goes to Triple-A.
The Astros are in a good situation in that their options are better than this time last year. Adding a lefty in Jeriome Roberston to the rotation would be a nice replacement for Hernandez, but should Tim Redding grab the fifth spot, Roberston could be a valuable lefty setup man in the bullpen. Ricky Stone, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner are likely the only locks in the 'pen, but the Astros have the luxury of choosing from Brandon Puffer, Brad Lidge and a myriad of could-be starters to fill out the bullpen.
What the Astros cannot afford to do this year is wait until the second half of the season to play well, as they did in '02. Now that the adjustment period between the team and the new skipper is over, the Astros have no excuse for turning in a poor showing when the gates open in April.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to
approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.