Just days before he spurned the Astros to accept a $119 million deal with the Mets on Jan. 9, free agent Carlos Beltran dined at a San Francisco restaurant with his would-be successor in Houston, 23-year-old Willy Taveras, and offered words of advice: Be yourself. "I knew then that Carlos wasn't coming back," says Taveras, who forged a bond with Beltran during his 10-game call-up last September. "He told me I was about to have a great opportunity, but I shouldn't try too hard to impress everyone."
Taveras impressed the Houston brass enough in spring training to take over Beltran's old spot in centerfield, and last week he got off to a scorching start with four consecutive multihit games. Through Sunday he led the National League with a .529 batting average. The 6-foot, 160-pound Taveras, who hit a total of 15 homers in six minor league seasons, may never be the power hitter Beltran is, but he has played slick defense in Minute Maid Park's treacherous outfield and put his blazing speed (he was clocked from home to first in 3.54 seconds) to work.
"We've never had a player like him, a guy who is so fast," utility infielder Jose Vizcaino said last Saturday, after Taveras scored from first base on Vizcaino's pinch-hit double in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Reds 4-3. "He's fun to watch."
Taveras's taking the place of Beltran is only one part of a major makeover by Houston, which won four of its first five games despite scoring only 19 runs. What was a fearsome slugging team in a hitter-friendly park last season--with Beltran, departed free-agent second baseman Jeff Kent and injured All-Star rightfielder Lance Berkman hammering the ball--has turned into a light-hitting club that relies on exceptional pitching and defense to win. With Berkman (torn ACL in his right knee) out until at least May, the Astros have an inexperienced outfield of Taveras, fellow rookie Luke Scott (no major league at bats entering 2005) in left and Jason Lane (13 home runs since reaching the majors in '02) in right.
"We're going to have to win games differently," says 36-year-old first baseman Jeff Bagwell, whose 27 homers last season were his fewest since '95. "We have to win with clutch hitting, moving runners over, smart baserunning."
In a lineup that has to play small ball, Taveras is a critical component. He was traded with Scott from the Indians to the Astros in March '04, then made the leap from Double A Round Rock, where he hit .335 with 55 stolen bases, to the big leagues at the end of last season. In camp this spring he hit .308 with a National League--high 10 stolen bases. "I hadn't counted on Willy becoming our centerfielder," says general manager Tim Purpura, "but he's responded to the challenge. Even if he weren't doing things he's doing offensively, his defense alone would justify him being on the team."
Despite his early success, Taveras has remained grounded and realizes he still has a lot to learn. "Carlos taught me about baserunning, how to play in the outfield, how to prepare [for games]," he says. "And he also taught me that you have to pace yourself. I have to stay focused because this is just a start--but it's a good start." ?