Daryle Ward was probably fooling with his PlayStation in another room, he can't exactly remember, when he learned on Dec. 19 that he was finally a starter for the Astros. After the words scrolled across the TV in the family room—HOUSTON FREE-AGENT OF MOISES ALOU AGREES TO A THREE-YEAR, $27 MILLION CONTRACT WITH CHICAGO CUBS—bedlam erupted. Wife Shannon and the three kids shrieked, and Ward admits to feeling a bit of a tingle. For a moment, anyway.
Then the 26-year-old first baseman turned outfielder reflected on the past three years, when he went from can't-miss to can't-crack-the-lineup. With Alou and fast-emerging fellow prospects Lance Berkman and Richard Hidalgo filling the outfield, Ward was a part-time player. "As a starter the thought process is a little different, but I know that it doesn't mean I can approach the game differently," says Ward. "I still have to be myself." So forgive him for not turning cartwheels. It's just that the Astros' new leftfielder can't help but think this moment could have come a lot sooner.
At the same time it seems as if his team has come to a crossroads as well. Last year Houston won its fourth division tide in five seasons and then failed again to claim the franchise's first playoff series victory, a setback that cost manager Larry Dierker his job. (He was replaced by former Red Sox skipper Jimy Williams.) With the Killer B's—first baseman Jeff Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio and, now, Berkman—returning, and a talented young rotation and a potent bullpen intact, the Astros' off-season changes don't add up to an overhaul. Still, with the free-agent departures of Alou and veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla (to the Braves), two rookies likely to start on the left side of the infield ( Morgan Ensberg at third base and Adam Everett at short) and an outfield with a combined six full seasons in the majors, a youth movement is afoot, to the dismay of Bagwell.
"We lost a lot when [Alou and Castilla] left, and it remains to be seen how much that will hurt us," says Bagwell, in the first year of a five-year, $85 million contract extension.
Says Biggio, "We're looking to some young guys, but it's not like they're all rookies."
Instead they are players such as Ward, who split the 1999 season between Triple A New Orleans and Houston, hitting .273 in 150 at bats with the Astros, before sticking in the big leagues for good. When an outfield spot opened late in the 2000 season, Dierker passed over Ward for Berkman, whom the manager considered the better athlete. But Ward's talent was obvious, and last year general manager Gerry Hunsicker promised him a chance to start this spring or perhaps be traded. When Alou signed with the Cubs, the opportunity to play every day became a reality.
While there's little question Ward can hit (his combined Triple A average was .324), his defense is another story. A hefty 230 pounds and far from nimble, Ward has been nagged about his conditioning, but he says he did more running and working out with weights this off-season than in past years. "I dropped off the weights as camp got closer," he says, "because I like to concentrate on my hitting at that point."
With superb righthanders Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, plus setup man Octavio Dotel, who led all major league relievers in strikeouts (128) last season, and closer Billy Wagner, Houston's staff should be dominant. If Ward and his fellow youngsters afield don't underachieve, the NL Central title won't be the only championship the Astros will contend for this year.
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