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CNN/SI Preview: Houston Astros

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Posted: Thursday March 11, 1999 10:16 AM

  Reynolds had more wins in 1998 (19) than Greg Maddux or Kevin Brown. Todd Warshaw/Allsport

By Ryan Hunt, CNN/SI

Player to Watch: Shane Reynolds, P

Shane Reynolds knows he isn't Randy Johnson. Houston doesn't need him to be.

Reynolds isn't overly dominating. He doesn't have a fancy nickname. He definitely isn't 6-foot-10 with a menacing look. But Reynolds was comparative with Johnson in one respect last year -- victories. Reynolds had 19 wins last season -- the same number Johnson, now a Diamondback, had with Seattle and Houston -- and his ERA was a mere 0.24 higher than the Unit's.

In fact, before they landed the "Big Unit" right before the trading deadline, the Astros were going along just fine with Reynolds as their ace. Houston was 21 games over .500 when Johnson came aboard, with Reynolds being a big reason why.

Reynolds, along with fellow double-digit winners Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Sean Bergman, won't make Houston fans forget about the overpowering performances Johnson had in the Astrodome. But another quiet, steady season could just well bring the Astros another NL Central title.

And it may get Reynolds a nickname.

1998 Recap (102-60, 1st place, NL Central)

The problem in Houston hasn't been in the regular season.

The Astros won back-to-back division championships for the first time in franchise history, but struggled for the second straight year in postseason play. After their first 100-win season, the Astros were dominated by Kevin Brown and the Padres in the Division Series.

Johnson was the story down the stretch, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in what would turn out to be his only 11 regular-season appearances in an Astros uniform. But a lot of the credit for Houston' success in 1998 has to go the offense, which led the National League in runs scored (874) and was second in batting average (.280).

1999 Outlook

As if losing Johnson to free agency and failing to acquire Roger Clemens wasn't painful enough, losing outfielder Moises Alou to a possible season-ending knee injury stings even worse.

Alou, who finished third in the NL MVP balloting behind Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while working out at home in the Dominican Republic. Houston will have to find a way to replace his .312 average, 38 home runs and 124 RBIs.

Second-year OF Richard Hidalgo, a highly touted prospect, will replace Alou in the outfield, but it likely will be second-time-around Astro Ken Caminiti who will bear the burden of matching Alou's production. If the 35-year-old Caminiti, who never hit more than 18 homers in any of his eight Houston seasons, can find the stroke he had in a breakout 1996 season -- .326, 40 homers, 130 RBIs -- and stay away from nagging injuries, things should be normal at the plate in Astroworld.

Roster Roundup
Who's New
3B Ken Caminiti, C Paul Bako, P Xavier Hernandez

Who's Gone
P Randy Johnson, 3B Sean Berry, C Brad Ausmus


The pitching staff has to avoid injuries as well, since it is not very deep. Phenom Scott Elarton, one of the reasons why the Astros did not deal for Clemens, likely will step into the starting rotation. However, they will have a new battery mate after the trade of Brad Ausmus. Mitch Meluskey, a switch-hitting prospect with power who had all of eight major league at-bats last season, will battle with veteran Tony Eusebio for the full-time catching slot.

Now the good news. Houston still has the Killer B's (Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Derek Bell) intact. The group combined to hit .315 with 76 homers and drive in 307 runs, and with Caminiti, will have to pick up some of Alou's slack.

Even with all of the changes, however, the Astros remain the solid favorites to win their third straight NL Central crown -- and perhaps this time, even more.

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