Though theyreached the World Series for the first time in franchise history, the Astroswent gently into last winter, batting .203 while limping through a four-gamesweep by the White Sox. That anemic performance--including a 1-for-33 stretchin Game 3 that manager Phil Garner angrily called "pretty poor hitting,absolute rotten hitting"--underlined what had been Houston's greatestweakness all season: Despite playing in one of the majors' coziest parks, theAstros finished in the bottom half of the National League in runs and inslugging and on-base percentages.
"When weended the World Series, the thought was that we needed to add someoffense," general manager Tim Purpura says, "but it quickly came downto the fact that we would have to add in the outfield. The attractive thingabout Preston Wilson is that he plays all three outfield positions, and thatwould give us some versatility and flexibility; that, coupled with his desireto come here. He was very proactive."
Wilson, who hit25 home runs splitting last season between Colorado and Washington, took hisfree-agent fate into his own hands in January, phoning Purpura directly toexpress his interest in going to Houston; after the 15-minute call that Purpuratook on his cell while driving, a one-year, $4 million deal (with a club optionfor three more years at $8 million annually) was arranged quickly, and Wilsonhad the best chance of his career to play for a contender. "They've proventhat they're committed to winning," he says. "At the end of the day youwant to be in a situation where you're given a chance not only to succeedpersonally but also as a team. This was the place that best afforded me thatoption."
An unabashedpower hitter who hacks shamelessly (his 148 strikeouts were fourth most in themajors last year), Wilson will thrive in Minute Maid Park, where the shortleftfield wall is an open invitation for his dead-pull stroke. In that callwith Purpura, Wilson discussed improving his selectivity, but the Astros won'tpush the issue. "With sluggers, guys who hit for power and production,you're going to strike out a lot," Purpura says. "We weren't lookingfor a guy to hit for average, we're looking for a guy to hit the ball out ofthe ballpark."
Houston'slineup--with first baseman Lance Berkman hitting third and third baseman MorganEnsberg batting cleanup--will benefit from Wilson's protective righthanded batin the five hole. "Those other guys hitting in front of [Wilson] would haveto get pitches to hit, and they could have some more numbers, too," Garnersays. "If he produces like we think he can, you can't sneak through it.Somebody is going to get you."
Wilson willprobably shuttle among all three outfield spots, though right, which isgeometrically simpler at Minute Maid, would suit Wilson best. "I'll fallinto place at one place or the other," he says. "In the end it's justmaking sure I'm positioned well, working with my centerfielder. It can bechallenging because it's an unusually shaped outfield, but I've never hadissues there. You have to watch the way the wall is shaped and how the ballkicks off it, but you can prepare yourself for that."
With the expectedretirement of 43-year-old Roger Clemens, the club's greatest void, of course,appears in its rotation. The Astros will attempt to fill the four and fiveslots by drawing from the unappealing grab bag of lefthander Wandy Rodriguezand righthanded prospects Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve. Rodriguez had a5.53 ERA last season, and Buchholz and Nieve have never pitched in the majors.Rodriguez seems most certain to make the club, mainly on the misguidedrationale that he won 10 games last year.
Wilson, who hasnever played for a winning team in eight seasons, relishes the chance toexperience the postseason; anything less than another pennant would be adisappointment for his new club as well. "I always wanted to be a part ofthe playoffs and have that desire," he says. "I'm just as hungry asthese guys are to get there."
The Astros ranked 24th in the major leagues in runs scored last season, with4.28 per game. That was the fewest for a World Series team since the 1992Braves averaged 4.21 runs.
a modest proposal
With a bullpenthat's deep from the right side and thin from the left--for example, leftyspecialist Mike Gallo has allowed a higher batting average to lefthandedhitters than to righties each of the past two years--manager Phil Garner shoulduse his power arms for multiple innings and not be concerned with gettinglefty-on-lefty matchups. Righthanders Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler(right) areeffective against lefties, and righthanded ground ball machine Chad Qualls hasbeen terrific against them. By using his pen this way, Garner may also be ableto save a roster spot for a pinch hitter to bolster one of the league's weakestlineups.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
second in NL Central
third season withHouston
PRESTON WILSON[New acquisition]
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
RH Roy Oswalt
LH Andy Pettitte
RH Brandon Backe
LH Wandy Rodriguez
RH Taylor Buchholz* (R)
RH Brad Lidge
RH Dan Wheeler
RH Chad Qualls
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
A 6'8",250-pound righthander who was a second-round pick in 2003, Jason Hirshblossomed last season, winning Texas League pitcher of the year honors atDouble A Corpus Christi. Hirsh, who throws a low-90s two-seamer, a slider and achangeup, led the league with 165 strikeouts in 1721/3 innings, finished with a2.87 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .218 average. He could speed throughhis stint at Triple A Round Rock.
Wilson can play all three outfield positions, and his swing should betailor-made for Minute Maid Park.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (WHEELER); MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (HIRSH)