Where have we seen this headline before? ASTROS TRADE YOUNG
CENTERFIELDER, GET DEPENDABLE CATCHER. Think back to 1991 when
Houston sent Kenny Lofton to the Indians and got Eddie Taubensee
in a multiplayer deal. Lofton is now an All-Star. Taubensee is
with the Reds. In December the Astros and the Tigers made a
nine-player swap, the centerpiece of which was Houston's young
centerfielder Brian Hunter. He went to Detroit for dependable
catcher Brad Ausmus. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice....
While the 26-year-old Hunter is not in Lofton's class yet, he
was the potential gem in the deal that also sent shortstop
Orlando Miller, pitchers Doug Brocail and Todd Jones and future
considerations to Detroit for Ausmus and pitchers Jose Lima,
C.J. Nitkowski, Trever Miller and Daryle Ward. In fact, the
trade appeared to be so lopsided that when it was announced, the
joke around Houston was that Astros president Tal Smith had
given Hunter to his son, Randy, the Tigers' general manager, as
a Christmas present.
Following a breakout 1995 season in which he hit .302 and stole
24 bases in 78 games, Hunter wound up on the trading block after
struggling in '96. He did swipe 35 bases, but his average
dropped to .276 and he struck out 92 times while drawing only 17
walks. Hunter's .297 on-base percentage was among the lowest in
the National League, a troubling statistic for a leadoff batter.
As a result Hunter was dropped in the Astros' batting order and
occasionally was even benched. He didn't help his cause by
committing 12 errors, tying for the league lead among
outfielders. And because of his seemingly indifferent play he
incurred the wrath of Houston manager Terry Collins, with whom
Hunter didn't get along. "It got to the point with the Astros
where I felt I was no longer wanted, that I couldn't do anything
right," Hunter says. "I'm happy to have a fresh start."
In Detroit, Hunter will get a chance to mature and rebuild his
game along with most of the rest of the Tigers, whose record
last year (53-109) was the worst in baseball. He expects to be
penciled into the leadoff spot every day, and Detroit believes
he will become a more disciplined hitter as he gains experience.
After all, he has only 871 major league at bats. "We feel that
with Brian's talent and speed, he is just scratching the surface
of what he can accomplish," Randy Smith says. "There's no reason
to think that Brian can't hit .280-plus and steal 50 bases a
season. Nobody's asking him to be Kenny Lofton."
Hunter and Lofton sometimes played together in the instructional
leagues when they were moving up through the Astros' farm
system, and Hunter is quick to point out that Houston fans
didn't lament the loss of Lofton until after he proved himself
in Cleveland. Now it's Hunter's turn to do likewise in Detroit.
"Someday down the road I want the Astros to regret having traded
me just as they did with Kenny," Hunter says. "I want Houston
fans to say they hope their team never makes another deal like
the Brian Hunter deal."
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER BRIAN HUNTER A Speedster with Lofton Goals
CF Brian Hunter
Never had more walks than K's in any full season as a pro
2B Damion Easley
At 27, this could be his last chance to be a regular
3B Travis Fryman
Only player in lineup with 300 career hits in the majors
1B Tony Clark
27 home runs in only 376 at bats in 1996
LF Bobby Higginson
No sophomore jinx last year: hit .320 with 35 doubles
RF Melvin Nieves
Had 24 HRs and 60 RBIs in first season as a regular
DH Bubba Trammell
Had a total of 33 homers and 99 RBIs last year in minors
C Brian Johnson
Increased batting average every year (.247, .251, .272)
SS Orlando Miller
Batted .329 last April but only .225 in September
Ace Justin Thompson
Team's most talented arm, but is it sound?
Closer Todd Jones
Total of 32 saves the last two seasons with Houston
Tony Clark led all rookies with 27 home runs last season, but
finished third in Rookie of the Year vote. In the 1990s only
three rookies have hit at least 27 homers, and all won the
award: Mike Piazza (35) and Tim Salmon (31) in '93 and David
Justice (28) in '90. Before Clark, the last rookie to hit at
least 27 homers and not be feted was Matt Nokes, also of
Detroit, who had 32 in '87, the same year Mark McGwire hit 49
for the A's.
STAT FACTS BY ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU