You've got to hand it to those venerable Astros. Last season the team's three senior players, Joe Niekro, 40, Nolan Ryan, 38, and Jose Cruz, 37, continued to confound Father Time. Niekro's knuckler kept dancing (16-12, 3.04 earned run average). Despite two stints on the disabled list, Ryan went 12-11 with a 3.04 ERA and regained the career strikeout lead from Steve Carlton (3,874—3,872) with 197 Ks in 183‚Öî innings. Leftfielder Cruz had a .312 average, 12 homers and 95 RBIs, made his patented running, sprawling catches and, perhaps most significant, played in 160 games and had 600 official times at bat. "If our young players worked as hard as these guys, they'd be exhausted," says manager Bob Lillis.
The problem is, there aren't enough good young Astros. The best of them, 26-year-old shortstop Dickie Thon, was disabled for the remainder of the 1984 season when a pitch by the Mets' Mike Torrez hit him above the eye in the fifth game. The Astros lost 14 of their first 21 games and never contended. "We lost a guy from a key position who represented power, speed and consistency," says general manager Al Rosen. "He couldn't be replaced." And he wasn't, although substitute Craig Reynolds finished second in the league with 709 chances. Even though Thon looked rusty afield this spring, he will be given every chance to win his job back, at least at the start of the season.
Bob Knepper is a capable (15-10, 3.20) third starter. If Mike Scott pitches as well in summer as he did in spring—he threw six perfect innings in a Florida game using his newly developed split-fingered fastball—the Astros could have a decent rotation. The bullpen again is deep (Frank DiPino, Bill Dawley, Dave Smith) but not deadly (only 29 saves last year).
The batting order is filled with stats like first baseman Enos Cabell's .310, centerfielder Jerry Mumphrey's .290 and rightfielder Terry Puhl's .301, but lacks sock (the club was last in the West with 79 homers). For this, their 20th season in the Astrodome, the Astros have moved in the fences six feet in center and 10 feet in right and left. Club officials think the shorter fences will turn Cruz, Puhl, Mumphrey, second baseman Bill Doran and third basemen Denny Walling and Phil Garner into better long-ball threats; last year they averaged seven home runs and collectively hit only five in the Dome. Everyone knows the club needs some real sluggers for the shorter fences. "This year," says Knepper, "the other teams will be helped a lot more than us."
The Astros helped themselves last year by winning 73 of their last 141 games to place second in the West in wins (80), ERA (3.32) and average (.264), and first in fielding (.979). Past Houston teams have started slowly when key players were injured, but this spring no one was disabled. Spirits are high. "We have morally sound, good-character, community-oriented, churchgoing people on this team," says Lillis. Plainly, the Astros have that oldtime religion. What they lack are young arms and bats.
All eyes will be on Thon's left eye as he tries to make a comeback.