2. Houston Astros
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Will Enron Field be the same house of horrors it was in 2000? No way, José!
By Jeffri Chadihi
Like his team, Lima, the flamboyant 28-year-old righthander, is trying to regain the look of a winner. After winning three consecutive Central Division titles, Houston finished last season with its worst mark since 1991. Lima, who had 37 victories in '98 and '99, wound up 7-16 after losing 13 straight games between April 10 and July 4, and allowed 48 home runs for the season, the most in National League history. Against the Cubs on April 27, he gave up four first-inning homers. "I know some people [in the organization] are concerned, but that doesn't bother me," Lima says. "One thing I've learned is that when I was playing well, nobody said anything. Now people say I'm too emotional or I'm trying to overdo it. But I know this: It's going to be a good year for me."
In addition to being spooked in 2000 by the tiny dimensions of Enron Field, the Astros' new ballpark, Lima had to confront adversity off the field as well, as his father, Francisco Rodriguez, battled throat cancer throughout the season. The disease is now in remission. Lima's spirits were further bolstered by his performance in the Dominican winter league, where he corrected his habit of tipping his pitches; by dropping his right arm a couple less inches during his delivery, Lima was better able to hide his pitches. Astros coaches -- still concerned about Lima's propensity for giving up the long ball -- have also worked on getting him to rely less on his beloved changeup.
"It's human nature to go to your strength when you get in trouble, and José was going to his changeup a lot," general manager Gerry Hunsicker says. "People knew that, and they were looking for it. He has to establish his fastball more."
Lima isn't the only Houston pitcher looking for a fresh start. The Astros set club single-season marks for worst ERA (5.41) and most home runs allowed (234) and blown saves (25). Those numbers prompted Hunsicker to trade for catcher Brad Ausmus in a six-player deal with the Tigers. Ausmus, who played in Houston in 1997 and '98 before he was dealt to Detroit, is a respected clubhouse presence with a reputation for calling a good game. "Brad will make you pitch inside," says reliever Doug Brocail, who was also obtained in the trade.
Scott Elarton is solid at the top of the rotation. Then come the question marks. Onetime ace Shane Reynolds missed the final two months of 2000 with a lower back injury and then underwent surgery after tearing the lateral meniscus in his left knee while jogging in December. He won't be ready until at least mid-April. The Astros brass is hoping for bigger things from Octavio Dotel, who struggled with his control after coming over in the December 1999 trade that sent Mike Hampton to the Mets. "He can't pitch constantly behind in the count and continue to have 90 or 100 pitches by the fifth inning," Hunsicker says.
The bullpen's performance last season mirrored that of the starters. After saving 39 games and holding opponents to a .135 batting average in 1999, Billy Wagner blew nine of 15 chances before undergoing season-ending surgery in June to repair a partially torn flexor tendon in his left (pitching) elbow. In the spring, however, he's impressed coaches with his velocity and command. "Batters couldn't touch Billy's fastball in '99, but last year they were connecting," manager Larry Dierker says. "This year, I've seen people swinging and missing again."
That's a reassuring sight to the Astros' stacked lineup. "We can score with anybody, but you can't win 10-9 every night," says first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who bashed 47 of the Astros' National League-record 249 homers in 2000. "On every playoff team, you look at its ERA and its defense, and that's where you'll see good numbers. If our bullpen and starters are healthy, we'll be fine."
Issue date: March 26, 2001