"Bourn, Pence and Towles at least bring a fresh identity to a thin, aging roster."
Shortly before Christmas general manager Ed Wade heard a knock at his office door. The visitor was nine-year veteran Lance Berkman, who had told a Houston newspaper reporter that he was not comfortable with the fist-pumping, sky-pointing theatrics of new closer Jose Valverde. "Should I call Jose and talk to him?" Berkman asked Wade, who had obtained Valverde on Dec. 14 in a four-player trade.
Wade assured Berkman that a hug and handshake on the first day of spring training would be sufficient. "It's been a tough off-season for [Berkman]", says a sympathetic Wade, whose wheeling and dealing left the Astros' longest-tenured player as one of only six holdovers from the 2005 team that lost to the White Sox in the World Series.
More than half of the 25 players on Houston's projected Opening Day roster were obtained in trades or through free agency after Wade was hired on Sept. 20 to replace Tim Purpura. The players in that group range from up-and-comers (speedy centerfielder Michael Bourn, 25) to declining stars (shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose range continues to deteriorate) to overpriced journeymen ($16.5 million second baseman Kazuo Matsui, box, below). "It took a while to get comfortable," acknowledges Berkman, one of only two everyday players who were in last year's Opening Day lineup. (Leftfielder Carlos Lee is the other.)
For all the turnover, Wade did little to upgrade a rotation that was about as stable as francium in 2007. Righthanded ace Roy Oswalt is the only starter who won at least 10 games last year, but at age 30 even he is starting to slip; his strikeout rate has gradually declined in each of the last three seasons while his walk rate spiked last year. Nolan Ryan, who was a special adviser to the team before becoming the Rangers' president last month, is impressed by the No. 2 starter, lefthander Wandy Rodriguez, whose record (9-13) belies his much-improved stuff (158 strikeouts in 182 2/3 innings). Beyond those two Houston has holes that Wade felt could not be filled by the free agents available. "Our view of this market was that it was a case of overpaying," he says. "Rather than focus on trying to add secondary arms to primary roles, we thought it was more important to focus on the offense."
Tejada was the most notable addition to a team that finished in the bottom half of the NL in runs, homers and stolen bases, but his power is not what it once was; his slugging percentage has fallen nearly 100 points over the last four seasons. The bigger lift -- at least over the long term -- will come from outfielder Hunter Pence (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 at least brings a fresh, younger identity to a thin, aging roster.
Manager Cecil Cooper, who took over for the fired Phil Garner last August, appears particularly intent on leveraging the speed of Bourn and Matsui. In addition to the usual fielding and hitting stations, a full-time baserunning drill station was set up this spring by Cooper, who hired former speedster Gary Redus to emphasize basestealing technique and taking extra bases. "Even Carlos will be expected to steal," says Cooper, referring to the lumbering, 6' 2", 240-pound Lee.
While the Astros are counting on Bourn and Matsui to inject some spark into the lineup, they'll get plenty of energy from Valverde, who describes his trademark fist-pumping as passion. (Opponents -- and even a few teammates -- call it showmanship.) But while he says that he "was offended" by Berkman's comments, he insists that he has gotten over it. Besides, as Wade told Berkman that day the first baseman visited him in his office, "What I like most about [Valverde's] routine is that he shook hands with his teammates 47 times last season at the end of games that he closed." -- Melissa Segura
Issue date: March 31, 2008