Three seasons after they nearly parlayed speed, pitching and defense into a World Series berth, the Houston Astros have now been reduced to gambling and dreaming.
The gamble is installing rookie Bill Doran at second base. To be sure, he played well there in 26 games last September. "He's got good range, makes the pivot and throws well," says teammate Phil Garner. "I don't know what he can't do." Unfortunately, Doran's arrival consigns Garner to third and Ray Knight to first, where neither is comfortable. "I haven't played third in four years," moans Garner, who will be one of the smallest (5'10", 177) and weakest-throwing men playing this position in the majors. Knight has performed at first for only half a season, and it shows.
But the gamble could work. "Our pitching's only as strong as our defense," says Pitcher Vern Ruhle, and Doran will team with Shortstop Dickie Thon to form an excellent double-play combination. In another boost to the defense, Centerfielder Omar Moreno, late of the Pirates, will run down many a fly in the spacious Astrodome and will steal lots of bases. The Astros need a running game as much as they need defense because Garner, the probable cleanup hitter, had only 13 homers last year. "We have some consistent, line-drive-type hitters," says Manager Bob Lillis, alluding to such players as Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and Alan Ashby. And the Astros do have superior depth.
The dream is that Houston's aging or middling starting pitchers can become supermen. Lillis tried inserting Ruhle in the fifth inning in exhibitions, the better to acquaint him with finishing games as well as starting them. Why? Because Houston's once-vaunted bullpen is in shambles. Last year Frank LaCorte's pitches were either wild or down the middle, Joe Sambito had surgery on his pitching (left) elbow and Dave Smith had an ailing back. This spring LaCorte was still struggling, Sambito was still recuperating—he probably won't pitch at all this season—and Smith has recovered from a broken ring finger on his pitching (right) hand.
How far can the Astro starters go? Joe Niekro won 17 games last year, and the indomitable Nolan Ryan finished within 14 strikeouts of Walter Johnson's career record, but Niekro is 38 and Ryan is 36. Mike LaCoss has a 38-41 record in five seasons and Bob Knepper has won only three games outside the Astrodome in the last two seasons. It would be nice if Ruhle, who has pitched in every capacity, could make the rotation. An emergency fill-in when J.R. Richard suffered a stroke in 1980, Ruhle went 12-4, but over the last two years he has slumped to 13-19.
The Astros have a pretty good idea of what they're in for. Publicly, the players mention improvement more than title contention, and privately club officials admit that 1983 will be a rebuilding year.
Shortstop Dickie Thon's slick fielding anchored an unstable infield, and he hit a pesky .276 and stole 31 bases in 45 tries. Joe Niekro had a stellar 2.47 ERA, and Nolan Ryan bounced back from a 2-5 start to finish at 16-12. Houston struggled because of its unhealthy relief corps, its lack of a potent cleanup man, its inability to stop base stealers and its 19-36 record against lefthanders.