The Five Men In

added 1/11/2001 by John Lauck

Everybody knows that, going into the 2001 season, the Astros' most obvious weakness is their pitching staff. Everybody also knows their strength is their outfield. But while GM Gerry Hunsicker has made several moves this off-season to shore up the pitching, and is working diligently to keep the powerhouse outfield intact for the next few years, not much attention has yet been paid to another part of the ball club that may be as crucial as any other part to the fortunes of the team this year: the infield.

How the five men in the Astros' infield play this year is even more important than it has been in the last four years. Primarily because of injuries to players on both the right and the left side of the diamond, it is next to impossible to predict with any accuracy how the infielders will perform, either offensively or defensively. Yet, "next to impossible" is not the same thing as "impossible," and therefore it might be worthwhile to take a look, position by position, at the main players in the Astros' infield (excluding pitchers) headed into spring training. As a group, these guys could be terrific, or they could be awful. We could say that, of course, about any major league infield almost any time, but the injuries Craig Biggio and Bill Spiers must recover from (in addition to the chronic back injuries they already had) make that generalization particularly apt for the Astros this year.

At catcher, the re-acquisition of Brad Ausmus may turn out to be as significant a move as trading him was two years ago. Most of the press and not a few of the fans have focused on Ausmus's ability to throw out would-be base-stealers, and we should focus on that ability because Ausmus does make it very hard for the opposition to get a running game going. But there are three other factors that will make watching Ausmus fun this year, as well. First, the pitches he calls behind the plate. Ausmus's penchant for calling for a Billy Wagner fastball too often was apparently one of the reasons he was exiled to Detroit. Assuming that Ausmus and Dierker have kissed and made up, however, Ausmus should be able to call a better game behind the plate than Mitch Meluskey. While no catcher can bear ultimate responsibility for the pitches that get thrown--the pitcher, after all, is the guy throwing them--a catcher can exert considerable influence over the pitching pattern of a game, what pitch gets thrown when, and where it gets thrown. Ausmus's ability to re-shape the pitching pattern of Jose Lima, for example, may be crucial in helping that former firebrand of a starter regain some of his late 90s form. While I don't hope for 17 wins out of Jose as Ray Kerby does, I do expect that Ausmus can at least help Lima cut down on the ridiculously high number of hanging sliders and over-the-heart-of-the-plate fastballs we saw from him last season. Second, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, I expect that Ausmus will be better than respectable offensively. He won't be Meluskey in that regard, but he will be able to slash balls down the left-field line and into the gaps, and use what speed he has left to keep the bottom of the Astros order from being three easy outs. Alternating with Tony Eusebio, who apparently solved that serious problem with his swing at mid-season last year, Ausmus and company should be able to improve the Astros' overall game behind the plate. If, on the other hand, Eusebio's knees or his shoulder act up during the season, Ausmus will have to carry on virtually alone. The Astros are mighty thin at catcher in the farm system. Third, though, Ausmus should also help improve the demeanor of the club as a whole, both on the field and off. We shouldn't see any more dugout quarrels between Lima and his catcher, or any pre-game batting cage fights, either. Ausmus is liked by his teammates and, although reportedly he was not too thrilled with the trade at first, he got an extension year guaranteed on his contract before he approved the move back to Houston, so he should be a happy man himself right now. Calling a game at Enron could be a traumatic experience for him in April and May, but he will learn to cope with it, and there's always the flip side of the coin: he gets to hit at Enron, too.

Over at first, there is the incomparable Jeff Bagwell. Although some of us think that with the well-deserved contract extension now under his belt Bagwell's offensive numbers could be even greater in 2001 than they were last year, I point out that 47 homers and 132 RBI are going to be pretty dadgum hard to top. Even so, the man is simply excellent in every way. As much as I admire his prowess at the plate, I admire his defense at first just as much. 'Tis a little thing to the casual fan, perhaps, but Bagwell's throws from first to the pitcher covering are the most accurate I've ever seen from anybody. And in the years we've all been watching him, I can count on the fingers of one hand alone the number of truly awful throws he's made from any other spot on the field. When Bagwell finally hangs his uniform up, it's his defense the team will miss the most. At the plate, Bagwell always tinkers with his stance in the spring and, truth to tell, he still has some things he could work on. He is as often vulnerable to the slider low and away as his buddy Biggio is, and opposing pitchers will still try to jam him up and in, causing my heart to skip a beat every time they do. One of the minor things being discussed this off-season in both leagues is what, if anything, to do about the protective padding hitters wear at the plate. If I were given a place at the discussion table, I would urge baseball to make some kind of distinction between essential and non-essential padding. Baseball players could probably live without the forearm pads and elbow pads that adorn a Craig Biggio, but anybody who watched in horror as Bagwell broke his left hand three years in a row realizes that the padded glove he wears is essential equipment to him up there, as it may be for other power hitters who get pitched inside a lot. The issue for me is whether Bagwell gets a competitive advantage by wearing such a glove. In my view, he doesn't. Biggio's forearm and elbow pads, on the other hand, do give him a small edge, as his HBP numbers would indicate. If Major League Baseball eventually restricts the type of protective gear hitters can wear at the plate, we can expect the risk of injury to Bagwell to go up exponentially. If Bagwell does go on the DL at some point this season, Daryle Ward can replace some of Bagwell's power, but little of his overall offensive game and even less of his defense. Admittedly, the Astros are in far better shape now than they were a few years ago to withstand the loss of Bagwell for a few games at any given point, but to lose Bagwell for any extended period would still be catastrophic. The man is that important.

Craig Biggio's return to full health is, to me, the essential condition for the Astros to vault back into contenders status in 2001. Alas, even before last year's season-ending knee injury, Biggio had been demonstrating a steady though not extreme decline in his skills since his truly wonderous year of 1998. While I do not believe Biggio can ever again be the player he once was, I do believe that his pride and professionalism will carry him farther on the Comeback Player of the Year trail than a lot of folks think it will. With hard work and a little luck, Biggio could rebound to the tune of numbers like .280/15/65, and that should be productive enough. I'd like to see him yank the ball a little more down the left-field line and give the Astros more homers, but he'll still continue to hit the other way when he's going good, too. Oddly, I don't always like him to hit to the opposite field, but if he would stop swinging at low and away sliders in the dirt so often, I'd take that tradeoff in a heartbeat. The number of his stolen bases will probably stay low, but he should continue to be sound defensively, provided he still has good lateral movement. His damaged knee means he might continue to have trouble on pop-ups to right field at Enron, but the half-year's experience of playing there might help him this season. We'll have to wait and see. His knee injury last year was a baserunner rollover, occuring on a double play--the kind of freak accident an experienced second baseman like Biggio should be able to avoid in the future. Biggio will always be banged up and play hurt, but in many ways, he should come to Kissimmee this season in even better shape than he has in several years. His back, for instance, may give him fewer problems in 2001 than it has in a long time. In the event he needs a rest or needs to go on the DL, his backup should be Julio Lugo, who's a lot smoother defensively at second than he is at short, but we could also see Bill Spiers spend some time there. If Biggio rebounds as well as he might, though, Spiers and Lugo will have to fill in elsewhere, and that probably will mean the Astros are back in the hunt for the division title.

At shortstop, the question is, "Is Jose Vizcaino really an upgrade over Tim Bogar?" My answer is a qualified "yes." Hunsicker has said publicly that he still believes defense is an essential part of any ball club. So it is, but notice that the team has opted for the more offensively-minded Vizcaino at short after a year of the more defensively-minded Bogar. Personally, while to me Vizcaino resembles Alex Rodriguez at the plate only in his dreams, I still like the switch. That's because I became convinced very early last season that a team must, whether it likes the idea or not, maximize offensive innings at Enron. The Astros cannot afford to give away outs at the bottom or the top of the order in that park, and they were giving away far too many outs between the woeful Bogar and Eusebio before Eusebio found his stroke. Vizcaino will be a better hitter than Bogar, less streaky and more steady at the plate, whether he hits second or eighth. Although Vizcaino is likely to wind up with a batting average no higher than the .250s, it's probably going to be a far more productive average than Bogar was ever able to give the club. Defensively, Vizcaino's no Bogar, but as long as he can make the routine play, no one will care. The Astros didn't fail defensively last year at shortstop because they couldn't make the long throw from the hole; they failed because they couldn't catch pop-ups, they couldn't turn the double play, and they couldn't always make the expected throws from the position. If Larry Dierker really is as committed to re-focusing on fundamentals in spring training as he said in October he would be, then the Astros should rebound at least to average at short by the end of March. Vizcaino's backup will probably be Julio Lugo, but I hope not. Lugo is much steadier at second. I think last year's experiment of trying Lugo at short was, frankly, a failure, and I don't think the continuation of that experiment this spring in winter ball (out of which Lugo emerged with a mildly-injured left shoulder) or in Kissimmee come March will yield positive results. The Astros would be better off letting Lugo spell Biggio periodically, and letting Bill Spiers back up Vizcaino.

Ray Kerby suggested in a recent column that the Astros were essentially exchanging Ken Caminiti for Charlie Hayes when they let Caminiti go and signed the veteran from Tomball, Texas, but I don't see things quite that way. The exchange is more clearly Caminiti for Chris Truby and, based on what we saw in 2000 both offensively and defensively, I like the exchange. Truby can hit, and although I am a firm believer in the old idea of the sophomore jinx, I think Truby may ultimately be able to adjust when pitchers no longer throw him the low pitches he destroyed so often last year. An offensive decline is to be expected, but I don't think it will be a severe one. If the Astros can get numbers around .260/15/70 out of him, they'll be fine, and they may not even need that much if Hayes can contribute some decent stats. Defensively, Truby has many of Caminiti's traits at third (both good and bad), but after spending some time at New Orleans early last season to work out the kinks, I was happy with his work for the Astros, especially the routine throw from third to first. I had grown weary of watching Caminiti's crow-hop and gun it style, and equally weary of watching Bagwell have to dig it up out of the dirt so often. It was a pleasure to watch, in Truby, someone who could simply make a normal play. His backup (or his replacement if he craters) will be Hayes, of course, but the Hayes signing doesn't put as much pressure on Truby as one might think. What it does is give the Astros a veteran bat on the bench, which they badly need, and it allows Bill Spiers to slide over and back up at short and second, two positions that, in my opinion, are less stressful on Spiers's painful back than playing third is. We'll have to wait and see how Dierker handles him this spring, but anything the Astros can do to keep Spiers--inning by inning one of the most productive players Houston has ever had--healthy, that they should do. Spiers, like Biggio, is coming off surgery (his left shoulder), but his rehabilitative task is not nearly as great as Biggio's. He should be fine by the time players report to camp.

"Should be fine" is a phrase we've heard a lot from Gerry Hunsicker over the last couple of years. First, it was in reference to the heart-rending injuries to Moises Alou and Richard Hidalgo. Even though it took a while, Hunsicker's words turned out to be accurate, accurate to the degree that I no longer worry about the Astros' outfield. Forget the pencil. Write it down in ink: those guys--Berkman, Hidalgo, and Alou--are gonna be great again. Now, one can only hope that Hunsicker will be right about the injuries afflicting the men in the Astros' infield, too. If Biggio can't come back, and if Spiers can't bend over, the outfielders and Bagwell could combine for close to 200 homers, and it won't make any difference. The Astros will finish fourth again, or lower. Hunsicker knows it's harder to predict recovery from injury for an infielder than for an outfielder because so many more kinds of movement are expected from an infielder, but the signing of Vizcaino and Hayes are indications that Astros' management thinks Biggio, among others, can come back, and that, for better or worse, they can win with what they have. These new guys are less expensive than other alternatives at their positions, to be sure, but they are also the kind of role players contending clubs rely on. In my most optimistic moments, I think that if Biggio, Spiers, and Lugo really are fine enough to provide solid offense and at least average defense in back of the pitching, and if Chris Truby can continue his steady play from a year ago, then the Astros do in fact have a good chance to vault back into contention in the NL Central this season.