SHORTLY BEFOREChristmas general manager Ed Wade heard a knock at his office door. The visitorwas nine-year veteran Lance Berkman, who had told a Houston newspaper reporterthat he was not comfortable with the fist-pumping, sky-pointing theatrics ofnew closer Jose Valverde. "Should I call Jose and talk to him?" Berkmanasked Wade, who had obtained Valverde on Dec. 14 in a four-player trade.
Wade assuredBerkman that a hug and handshake on the first day of spring training would besufficient. "It's been a tough off-season for [Berkman]", says asympathetic Wade, whose wheeling and dealing left the Astros' longest-tenuredplayer as one of only six holdovers from the 2005 team that lost to the WhiteSox in the World Series.
More than half ofthe 25 players on Houston's projected Opening Day roster were obtained intrades or through free agency after Wade was hired on Sept. 20 to replace TimPurpura. The players in that group range from up-and-comers (speedycenterfielder Michael Bourn, 25) to declining stars (shortstop Miguel Tejada,whose range continues to deteriorate) to overpriced journeymen ($16.5 millionsecond baseman Kazuo Matsui, box, below). "It took a while to getcomfortable," acknowledges Berkman, one of only two everyday players whowere in last year's Opening Day lineup. (Leftfielder Carlos Lee is theother.)
For all theturnover, Wade did little to upgrade a rotation that was about as stable asfrancium in 2007. Righthanded ace Roy Oswalt is the only starter who won atleast 10 games last year, but at age 30 even he is starting to slip; hisstrikeout rate has gradually declined in each of the last three seasons whilehis walk rate spiked last year. Nolan Ryan, who was a special adviser to theteam before becoming the Rangers' president last month, is impressed by the No.2 starter, lefthander Wandy Rodriguez, whose record (9--13) belies hismuch-improved stuff (158 strikeouts in 182 2/3 innings). Beyond those twoHouston has holes that Wade felt could not be filled by the free agentsavailable. "Our view of this market was that it was a case ofoverpaying," he says. "Rather than focus on trying to add secondaryarms to primary roles, we thought it was more important to focus on theoffense."
Tejada was themost notable addition to a team that finished in the bottom half of the NL inruns, homers and stolen bases, but his power is not what it once was; hisslugging percentage has fallen nearly 100 points over the last four seasons.The bigger lift—at least over the long term—will come from outfielder HunterPence (third in last year's NL Rookie of the Year vote) and catcher J.R. Towles(.375 batting average after a late-season call-up), who along with Bourn atleast brings a fresh, younger identity to a thin, aging roster.
Manager CecilCooper, who took over for the fired Phil Garner last August, appearsparticularly intent on leveraging the speed of Bourn and Matsui. In addition tothe usual fielding and hitting stations, a full-time baserunning drill stationwas set up this spring by Cooper, who hired former speedster Gary Redus toemphasize basestealing technique and taking extra bases. "Even Carlos willbe expected to steal," says Cooper, referring to the lumbering, 6'2",240-pound Lee.
While the Astrosare counting on Bourn and Matsui to inject some spark into the lineup, they'llget plenty of energy from Valverde, who describes his trademark fist-pumping aspassion. (Opponents—and even a few teammates—call it showmanship.) But while hesays that he "was offended" by Berkman's comments, he insists that hehas gotten over it. Besides, as Wade told Berkman that day the first basemanvisited him in his office, "What I like most about [Valverde's] routine isthat he shook hands with his teammates 47 times last season at the end of gamesthat he closed."
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
FIRST YEAR WITH HOUSTON
Jose Valverde (New acquisition)
Oscar Villarreal (New acquisition)
Doug Brocail (New acquisition)
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
The Astros wentinto spring training with a set lineup and roster, in part because they madeone of the more questionable signings of the off-season. While Kazuo Matsui's.342 on-base percentage and 32 steals in 2007 looked attractive, his season waslargely a Coors Field mirage. Down from the mountain, the 32-year-old Matsui(left) hit .249 with a .304 OBP and a .333 slugging percentage, even worse thanhis .266/.318/.379 marks during his three previous seasons with the Rockies andthe Mets. Paying Matsui $16.5 million over three seasons is a mistake. MarkLoretta, the veteran infielder who will make $2.75 million this year, is thebetter player at the plate (career .362 OBP) and comparable in the field, andshould be given a big chunk of the playing time at second.
Runs batted in byrookie catcher J.R. Towles on Sept. 20 against the Cardinals. Towles, who wasplaying in just his sixth major league game, has a reputation as a runproducer: During his minor league career he averaged one RBI every 6.1 at bats;by contrast, incumbent catcher Brad Ausmus, 39 in April, failed to average oneRBI per 10 at bats in three of the last four seasons.
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MARCH 2, 1981
J.R. RICHARD alsoremembers playing catch with former teammate Wilbur Howard in the Astrodome onJuly 30 and suddenly losing his balance and falling to his hands and knees, hisears ringing, and Wilbur saying, "Jay, are you all right?" He remembersthe siren and being lifted into the ambulance and attendants putting coldtowels on his head. "I remember all that," he says. "I remember itlike it was yesterday."
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LIFTOFF Houston went outside the organization to boost the offense, but the development of the homegrown Pence will bring the larger reward.
CHRIS LIVINGSTON/EPA (MATSUI)
TONY TRIOLO (COVER)