Billy Wagner knew he was gone even before rumors of an off-season trade began to simmer in late September. The Astros' illustrious closer was having the finest season of his career, but with an $8 million salary slated for 2004 and the emergence of Octavio Dotel behind him in the bullpen, Houston's alltime saves leader (225) knew he had become expendable on a team seeking payroll flexibility. "Last season Billy kept telling me, 'They know they don't need me anymore, because they have you,' " says Dotel, who was a setup man for Wagner for almost three seasons. " 'Get ready,' he would say. 'Your time's come.' "
Days after the final game of the World Series, Dotel got the call from his agent: The Astros had dealt Wagner to the Phillies for righthander Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers. The trade ultimately enabled Houston to sign former Yankees starters Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. It also placed the Astros' 2004 fortunes, in part, on the slender shoulders of Dotel, who gets the keys to a bullpen that last year was the National League's busiest (3.6 innings per game) and was the league's second-most effective (3.24 ERA). "You don't replace someone as good as Billy," says general manager Gerry Hunsicker, "but having a guy like Dotel [scheduled to make $2.8 million this season] certainly takes away a bit of the sting."
Entering the 2001 season, Dotel, who had broken into the majors as a starter with the Mets in 1999, was told by Astros coaches that he had no future in the rotation. "He didn't have the repertoire," says pitching coach Burt Hooton. "He'd go out there relying on his fastball and get by with it for four innings, but eventually hitters would catch up."
"I didn't think I was given enough of a chance," says Dotel, who in 34 career starts, 20 of them in Houston, was 9-9 with a 5.61 ERA. "I didn't want to show up at the ballpark [and work as a setup man]. My only thought was, F—Houston."
Dotel eventually realized that his restless personality and one-pitch arsenal were better suited to the one-inning setup role. Since moving to the bullpen in '01, he has a 2.09 ERA in 215 games, and last season he held hitters to a .172 average. Now he will be set up by 27-year-old righthander Brad Lidge, a lanky 6'5" power pitcher and former highly touted Astros prospect whose career advancement was slowed by injuries. (He was on the DL every one of his first four seasons, 1998 through 2001.)
Injury-free in '03, Lidge spent his first full season in the majors, working in middle relief and striking out 97 batters (fourth most among big league relievers) in 85 innings. "Brad was given a grueling workload," Hooton says. "Now he's battle-tested for his new role."
Elsewhere, the rotation and every-day lineup were already set when spring training started. In fact the lineup is a carbon copy of last year's—though Houston hopes some players, particularly leftfielder Lance Berkman, don't have seasons that look like last year's. After a monster 2002 with 42 homers and 128 RBIs, Berkman fell to 25 homers and 93 RBIs. "Last year it was reasonable to expect we'd have four guys with 100-plus RBI seasons, and instead we had one [ Jeff Bagwell]," says Hunsicker. "No one had anywhere near a career year. More players than not had below-average seasons. We expect the offense to do significantly better."
With the arrival of Clemens and Pettitte, expectations have never been higher in Houston, a city that has never had a team in the World Series in the franchise's 42-year history. These Astros are built to win now, and not even a good October push will suffice because too many uncertainties await at season's end. The list of players eligible for free agency includes 38-year-old Craig Biggio, 41-year-old Clemens, 36-year-old Jeff Kent and 28-year-old Richard Hidalgo, who will make a hefty $12 million this year. Team officials also wonder how much longer they can count on the 35-year-old Bagwell, whose arthritic shoulder prevents him from going all out during pregame fielding practice.
"We all realize that this is, in all probability, the last year that a lot of these guys will be together, perhaps the last time they will be able to do something special," Hunsicker says. "The clock is ticking."
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