reached the World Series for the first time in franchise history, the Astros
went gently into last winter, batting .203 while limping through a four-game
sweep by the White Sox. That anemic performance--including a 1-for-33 stretch
in Game 3 that manager Phil Garner angrily called "pretty poor hitting,
absolute rotten hitting"--underlined what had been Houston's greatest
weakness all season: Despite playing in one of the majors' coziest parks, the
Astros finished in the bottom half of the National League in runs and in
slugging and on-base percentages.
ended the World Series, the thought was that we needed to add some
offense," general manager Tim Purpura says, "but it quickly came down
to the fact that we would have to add in the outfield. The attractive thing
about Preston Wilson is that he plays all three outfield positions, and that
would give us some versatility and flexibility; that, coupled with his desire
to come here. He was very proactive."
Wilson, who hit
25 home runs splitting last season between Colorado and Washington, took his
free-agent fate into his own hands in January, phoning Purpura directly to
express his interest in going to Houston; after the 15-minute call that Purpura
took on his cell while driving, a one-year, $4 million deal (with a club option
for three more years at $8 million annually) was arranged quickly, and Wilson
had the best chance of his career to play for a contender. "They've proven
that they're committed to winning," he says. "At the end of the day you
want to be in a situation where you're given a chance not only to succeed
personally but also as a team. This was the place that best afforded me that
power hitter who hacks shamelessly (his 148 strikeouts were fourth most in the
majors last year), Wilson will thrive in Minute Maid Park, where the short
leftfield wall is an open invitation for his dead-pull stroke. In that call
with Purpura, Wilson discussed improving his selectivity, but the Astros won't
push the issue. "With sluggers, guys who hit for power and production,
you're going to strike out a lot," Purpura says. "We weren't looking
for a guy to hit for average, we're looking for a guy to hit the ball out of
lineup--with first baseman Lance Berkman hitting third and third baseman Morgan
Ensberg batting cleanup--will benefit from Wilson's protective righthanded bat
in the five hole. "Those other guys hitting in front of [Wilson] would have
to get pitches to hit, and they could have some more numbers, too," Garner
says. "If he produces like we think he can, you can't sneak through it.
Somebody is going to get you."
probably shuttle among all three outfield spots, though right, which is
geometrically simpler at Minute Maid, would suit Wilson best. "I'll fall
into place at one place or the other," he says. "In the end it's just
making sure I'm positioned well, working with my centerfielder. It can be
challenging because it's an unusually shaped outfield, but I've never had
issues there. You have to watch the way the wall is shaped and how the ball
kicks off it, but you can prepare yourself for that."
With the expected
retirement of 43-year-old Roger Clemens, the club's greatest void, of course,
appears in its rotation. The Astros will attempt to fill the four and five
slots by drawing from the unappealing grab bag of lefthander Wandy Rodriguez
and righthanded prospects Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve. Rodriguez had a
5.53 ERA last season, and Buchholz and Nieve have never pitched in the majors.
Rodriguez seems most certain to make the club, mainly on the misguided
rationale that he won 10 games last year.
Wilson, who has
never played for a winning team in eight seasons, relishes the chance to
experience the postseason; anything less than another pennant would be a
disappointment for his new club as well. "I always wanted to be a part of
the playoffs and have that desire," he says. "I'm just as hungry as
these guys are to get there."
The Astros ranked 24th in the major leagues in runs scored last season, with
4.28 per game. That was the fewest for a World Series team since the 1992
Braves averaged 4.21 runs.
a modest proposal
With a bullpen
that's deep from the right side and thin from the left--for example, lefty
specialist Mike Gallo has allowed a higher batting average to lefthanded
hitters than to righties each of the past two years--manager Phil Garner should
use his power arms for multiple innings and not be concerned with getting
lefty-on-lefty matchups. Righthanders Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler(right) are
effective against lefties, and righthanded ground ball machine Chad Qualls has
been terrific against them. By using his pen this way, Garner may also be able
to save a roster spot for a pinch hitter to bolster one of the league's weakest