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Sports Illustrated's 1999 Baseball Preview
 
  Despite losing out on Clemens and being devoid of a bona fide No. 1 starter, the Astros rotation is still in good hands with pitchers like Hampton. Harry How/Allsport

Houston Astros

Even without Moises Alou, the 1998 division champs hit too much to miss

By Mark Bechtel

Astros third baseman Ken Caminiti would seem to be one of the least likely people to have a fluffy show dog named Charmaine, a petit basset griffon vendeen. Caminiti looks more like the owner of a bulldog or a Great Dane. He's often scowling, and if his uniform isn't dirty by the third inning, it's because he's not playing. Take a look at his forearms, and you half expect to see Olive Oyl in tow. His haunts once included tattoo parlors and still include garages, where he likes to hang out and restore cars. He is, in a word, tough.

Caminiti will tell you that Charmaine, who finished second in her group at the Westminster Kennel Club show in February, is tougher than she looks. "That dog has attitude," he says. Caminiti might be the opposite. Under his gruff exterior beats the heart of a softy. His most prominent tattoo, on his chest, bears the names of his three daughters, on whom he dotes. When he was deciding where to sign as a free agent in the off-season, he turned down bigger bucks from the Tigers ($21.5 million for three years) to accept a two-year, $9.5 million deal from Houston, for which he played from 1987 to '94. "That's where my daughters go to school," says Caminiti, who was a member of the Padres last season. "I only got to see them two months last year. And my two best friends, Bags [first baseman Jeff Bagwell] and Bigg [second baseman Craig Biggio], are here."

 
Manager
Larry Dierker
(third season with Houston)
1998 Record
102-60 (first in NL Central)
Prediction
First in NL Central
Batting Order
2BCraig Biggio
CFCarl Everett
1B Jeff Bagwell
3BKen Caminiti
RF Derek Bell
LF Richard Hidalgo
C Mitch Meluskey
SS Ricky Gutierrez
Starters
RH Shane Reynolds
LH Mike Hampton
RH Jose Lima
RH Sean Bergman
RH Scott Elarton
Bullpen
LH Billy Wagner
RH Doug Henry
RH Jay Powell
LH Trever Miller
RH Xavier Hernandez
RH Chris Holt
Next Up...
Say this about catcher Mitch Meluskey : The guy's a quick learner. When he sent Meluskey to the minors last March, Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker told him that he wouldn't be a major leaguer anytime soon unless he worked on his defense and his handling of pitchers. Meluskey, a switch-hitter who batted .353 for Triple A New Orleans last year, did just that, and now he'll split time behind the plate with Tony Eusebio. "His upside is enormous," says manager Larry Dierker. "He could be one of the best offensive catchers in the league. But if he's going to make it with this team, it's going to be because of his defense."
Last year that pair helped the Astros set a franchise record by scoring 874 runs, 97 more than the old mark, set the season before. In 1998 Bagwell was his usual dependable self, and Biggio had one of the best seasons ever by a leadoff man. He hit 51 doubles, three triples, 20 homers and stole 50 bases. Without any help, Biggio put himself into scoring position in roughly one sixth of his plate appearances. "He makes things happen," says Caminiti. "He's the kind of guy who can win a game by himself. Not too many guys can do that."

Houston, however, took a big hit in February when leftfielder Moises Alou tumbled off a treadmill during a workout and tore his left anterior cruciate ligament. He will probably be sidelined for the entire season. "We're obviously going to miss what Mo does on the field, but that's just half the story." says Biggio. "He's a guy who's great in the clubhouse. We're going to miss that part as much as we're going to miss anything else."

Caminiti, whose average dropped 38 points last year, will be counted on to help. "He should pick up some of the RBIs," says manager Larry Dierker. "And he gives us a tough lefthanded bat in the middle of the lineup, and that's something we needed from time to time last year against the better righthanded pitchers." Indeed, the Astros hit 21 points lower (.275) against righties than lefties, the biggest such differential in the National League.

Alou's injury unsnarls a logjam in the outfield. With Derek Bell a fixture in right, last year's centerfield combination of Carl Everett, who had a career year, and Richard Hidalgo, who showed tremendous promise as a rookie, put Dierker in a quandary: how to divvy up three spots among four men. "We talked this winter about the problem we might have with bringing all four guys back," says Dierker. "Everett and Hidalgo clearly proved that they deserve a chance to be every-day players. If we didn't trade any of the four, it was going to be difficult to keep them satisfied. But we decided not to, and that turned out to be a good decision."

The Astros most newsworthy nontrade involved Roger Clemens. After losing rented ace Randy Johnson to free agency, Houston's failure to land the Rocket leaves them without an established No. 1 starter. "I'd like to have [Clemens]," says Dierker, "but there's only so much you can do on a $50 million budget. I'm satisfied with our pitching the way it is." Righties Shane Reynolds and Jose Lima and southpaw Mike Hampton had 46 wins between them last season, and Dierker thinks Reynolds, who had 19 victories, is "one season from being considered a Number-1-type starter."

Another sticking point in the Clemens nondeal was Houston's reluctance to trade 23-year-old righty Scott Elarton to the Blue Jays to obtain the Rocket. The 6'7", 240-pound Elarton will be the Astros' fifth starter this year, and when his skills catch up with his size, he could make Houstonians forget about Clemens.

  • Houston Astros
  •  
    Regardless, Houston feels confident it can win with the pitching it has. "We don't need a Number 1 starter," says Bagwell. "I think our offense is good enough to carry us." That's where Caminiti, who turns 36 in April, comes in. He was plagued by injuries last year, and he's clearly not the same player he was in 1996, when he won the National League MVP award. Still, he drove in 82 runs and played in the World Series for the first time. When asked if he's happy with the way he performed in '98, his answer is a quick "Hell, no." But, after taking a moment to ponder his new situation, he adds, "I'm going to try to learn how to be happy this year. It's a tough game. The more pressure you put on yourself, the tougher it is. I'm just going to have fun and play."

    Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

    Issue date: March 29, 1999



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