Galveston, Oh Galveston
Righthander Brandon Backe became an instant favorite at Minute Maid Park when he pitched seven scoreless innings and added a two-run single in his first major league start Aug. 21. The native of nearby Galveston was drafted as a second baseman by Tampa Bay in 1998 and didn't move full time to pitching until 2001. He homered in a Sept. 6 win over Cincinnati and, when Roger Clemens became ill, started and won the final game of the regular season, a 5-3 victory over Colorado that clinched the wild card for Houston.
Baseball's AARP Club
Houston could go into Opening Day with four players 35 and older in the starting lineup. Clemens is 42, left fielder/second baseman Craig Biggio is 39, first baseman Jeff Bagwell is 36 (turns 37 in May) and catcher Brad Ausmus turns 36 April 14.
Shortstop Adam Everett received an early introduction to major league baseball. Everett grew up in Kennesaw, Ga., close friends with Chad Sutter, son of then Atlanta reliever Bruce Sutter. That allowed Adam the chance to meet some of the Braves. "It was awesome getting to go in the clubhouse, meet Dale Murphy, Rafael Ramirez, Glenn Hubbard," he said. "I liked the middle infielders the best."
Fight on for USC
Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who helped USC win the 1998 College World Series, and closer Brad Lidge, who played at Notre Dame, were roommates in the minors and remain close friends. The day after their alma maters collide in football there's always a phone call placed from the victor to the loser. Ensberg owns the upper hand lately with his Trojans beating Notre Dame three in a row, each by 31 points.
The Astros, big winners in September and October, tried to play Texas Hold 'Em with multi-talented center fielder Carlos Beltran and lost the poker game to agent Scott Boras. By the time Beltran signed with the Mets, most of the outfielders who could have helped Houston ease the loss of Beltran had already signed elsewhere. Houston planned to put all its bucks in the Beltran basket, failing to exercise the option on second baseman Jeff Kent or offer starter Wade Miller arbitration. The Astros did receive some good news in late January, however, when future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens decided to return for (at least) one more season.
Clemens won his seventh Cy Young last season and although he will turn 43 in August, he proved he hasn't lost his fastball or his fire. Roy Oswalt led the National League in wins last season with 20. Lefthander Andy Pettitte started only 15 games last year before undergoing elbow surgery. The Astros need him to pitch the way he once did in New York. Brandon Backe earned a spot in the rotation with his strong performance the last month and a half of the season and in the playoffs. Either Pete Munro, who ended last season as the No. 5 starter, or lefthander Carlos Hernandez, still regaining his velocity after an impressive debut in 2001, must be counted on every fifth day.
Brad Lidge instantly became one of the game's best closers after being promoted to the role in June following the trade of Octavio Dotel to Oakland in the three-team deal for Beltran. Lidge, with his nearly unhittable slider, earned 29 saves in 33 opportunities, and his 157 strikeouts set a National League record for a reliever. Getting to Lidge with a lead, however, could be problem. Dan Wheeler pitched well in the playoffs but is unproven over a full season. Chad Qualls could be the setup man. Chad Harville, Brandon Duckworth, Tim Redding, who has started 49 games over the past two seasons, and lefty Mike Gallo are candidates to be the middle men, along with late additions Dave Burba and Turk Wendell.
Shortstop Adam Everett is an outstanding defensive player. He began 2004 batting second, and his speed and bunting ability make him an excellent choice to return to that spot in the order. He finished second in the majors with 22 sacrifice bunts. Second base became an issue when the Astros failed to retain Jeff Kent. Prospect Chris Burke has proven he can hit in Triple-A but went 1-for-17 with the Astros. Moving outfielder Craig Biggio back to second base is definitely an option. He played there daily as recently as 2002 and at 39 has yet to show his age. Jose Vizcaino is a more than adequate replacement at either position defensively and can hit.
Jeff Bagwell returns for his 15th season as Houston's starting first baseman. He started slowly last season and was moved all the way down to sixth in the order. But he regained his swing under manager Phil Garner, who inserted him in the No. 3 slot in the order. His right shoulder is shot (literally with cortisone) as far as throwing the ball, but he is still one of the best in the game at digging balls out of the dirt. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg's home run production tumbled from 25 in 2003 to only 10 last year. But he increased his RBI total to 66 and is solid defensively. Mike Lamb can be a liability in the field, but he started 53 games at third, partially because Ensberg was sidelined for three weeks with back spasms. Lamb finished the year at .288 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs, eye-catching numbers for a part-time player.
The Astros will not be able to replace Beltran's defense. His departure creates plenty of questions in the Astros outfield. Right fielder Lance Berkman tore his right ACL playing flag football in November and underwent surgery a week later. When will he be ready? When Berkman is ready, does he stay in right field, or move to left? Biggio would have fit in better defensively at his former position at second base. He will probably have to start the season in left. Will he switch back to second after Berkman returns? Jason Lane is ready to play every day. Can he do the job defensively in Minute Maid's vast center field? Will Orlando Palmeiro be the Opening Day starter in right?
At 36, Brad Ausmus (and his arm) may not be quite as effective as he used to be, but he is still solid behind the plate. Most important, he has the respect of Astros pitchers, young and old. Ausmus is limited offensively, but Garner is not afraid to pinch-hit for him late in games and bring in backup Raul Chavez to catch. Chavez isn't much of a hitter either, but he became Oswalt's regular catcher in 2004. The Astros gave up prospect John Buck to Kansas City in the Beltran trade.
Vizcaino is the ultimate utility player, able to field any infield position with aplomb and contribute at the plate. He appeared in 138 games last year, starting 52 at shortstop, 26 at second base, six at third and three at first. Eric Bruntlett can also help defensively at second or short. Lamb is a valuable pinch hitter with power. Palmeiro is an outfield version of Vizcaino; he started a total of 17 games at all three outfield positions.
The biggest surprise of the offseason was the abrupt resignation of general manager Gerry Hunsicker soon after the season ended. Hunsicker guided the Astros for nine years, winning four NL Central Division titles and finishing second four other times, including the 2004 run to a playoff berth. The last two years he signed free agents Kent, Pettitte and Clemens, and engineered the trade for Beltran. But there were apparent differences of opinion with owner Drayton McLane. Astros assistant GM Tim Purpura was immediately promoted to the general manager's job. Purpura has been with Houston for 11 years, working his way up through the ranks. Hunsicker will remain with the team for one more season as a consultant.
The Astros will miss Beltran offensively and defensively. Losing Kent's RBI production is another negative. But Houston should be able to score enough runs. Starting pitching could be a problem if Pettitte and/or Hernandez are not completely healthy. Houston can't afford any injuries in the rotation this year. Someone will have to step up in the bullpen to be a consistent seventh- and eighth-inning guy to give Lidge a shot at a save. The Astros will need plenty of breaks to contend for another wild-card spot.