One down, one to go

added 1/29/2003 by Raymond Desadier

Traditionally, the Astros carry five outfielders on their 25-man roster. Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Richard Hidalgo are locks. The two remaining spots must be claimed by Jason Lane, Victor Hall, Orlando Merced and Brian Hunter.

A solid spring by Lane may very well force a platoon with Hidalgo, and even if Lane performs decently, he would still be the successor of a struggling Hidalgo. Hall is a defensive whiz who with a solid spring would also be hard to deny a roster spot. Additionally, he is a Rule V draftee so if the Astros don’t find a use for him they must ship him back to Arizona getting little in return.

That leaves Merced and Hunter, and with a budget in need of trimming it seems logical to send one of them packing. Since they both earn relatively the same sized paycheck, the question comes to who will help the team more.

GM Gerry Hunsicker may choose to wait until spring training to make this decision because if Lane makes the team, the bench would be more in need of Hunter’s defense. However, if it were Hall that made the team, Hunter would be expendable and Merced would be the best fit.

However, with the current state of the market, delaying trades is not expedient. If all Daryle Ward could land was a Double-A pitcher, how much less would aging reserves like Merced and Hunter draw? Perhaps nothing by April, so now is the time to deal if it is not too late already.

Merced has earned a reputation of coming up big at the right time. He has made several clutch hits in big games for the Astros, most notably a grand slam against the Cubs in 2001. Though he lacks the speed of Hunter, he is very solid defensively. Additionally, Merced outperformed Hunter in several offensive categories.

Merced 251 .287 .350 .434 41.8 .199 4
Hunter 201 .269 .329 .423 67 .194 5

Though Merced offers more home run potential, his strikeout numbers are nearly identical to those of Hunter. Hunter is supposedly a base stealing threat, but five hardly exemplify it.

Hunter is also fundamentally challenged, as evidenced by his attempt to stretch a double into a triple last September in a close game in the middle of a pennant race. Not only did his blunder probably cost his team the game, he refused to take responsibility for his mistake when questioned by reporters after the game. In order to be a champion, one must be a team player and Hunter is not one of them.

The only clear advantage Hunter has over Merced is his defensive capability so the question Hunsicker must ask himself is, “Is that really worth what we pay him?” If Hall is truly as fast as scouts attest, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Brain Hunter - The Search Continues should be traded for whatever Hunsicker can land for him, even if that means a few dozen bats and a box of balls.

And if Lane and Hall are both a bust, it’s a good chance that one of the many free agents will remain. Ron Gant and Chuck Knoblauch would probably accept a spring training invitation to play in their hometown and Hunsicker might catch lightning in a bottle.

Is there a dentist in the house?

When Gerry Hunsicker said he’d like to land another “veteran” starting pitcher, the first thing that popped into my mind was the $1 million signing of Kent Bottenfield two years ago. Fortunately, this time Hunsicker was a little smarter and spent only half that much on {Brian Moehler} who offers far more potential than Bottenfield ever did.

Moehler has put up decent numbers during his tenure at Detroit yet never was able to put it all together. Even if he performs as he has in the past, he will be a solid fourth or fifth starter. However, I think that two factors may propel him to pitch like a number three or perhaps even a number two starter.

1) A change of scenery. Sure it didn’t work when he went to Cincinnati last year, but the Astros are a better team than the Reds and he didn’t have a Roy Oswalt or Wade Miller or even a Shane Reynolds anchoring the rotation for him there.
2) Less pressured environment – In both Cincinnati and Detroit, Moehler was looked upon to be one of the top pitchers in the rotation. That’s one problem he doesn’t have to worry about in Houston. He can just rare back and pitch, and the results should be positive.

Then again, Jose Lima may have rubbed off on him last season and he may pitch horrendously, but if that’s the case it will be a lot easier to waive a guy making half a million than if he were making a full million or more.

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