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Don't blame Enron for slow start
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
It's been a frustrating opening quarter of the season for the Astros. Jose Lima has been in Enron Shock, there has been subtle sniping at Larry Dierker (players passing the blame?) and at times they've played as if baseball is their night job. The club that for three straight years had the lowest payroll of any team in the postseason -- then cut salary as they moved into their new ballpark -- has sprung leaks.
"There's no question that we underestimated how difficult it is to be in transition and contend," says GM Gerry Hunsicker, who over the winter let his best pitcher (Mike Hampton), center fielder (Carl Everett), right fielder (Derek Bell) and shortstop (Ricky Gutierrez) go for fiscal reasons. "We're a better team than we've played at times, and we will get better. But we play like an inexperienced team.
"Everything starts with the starting pitching, and that's where we've really been hurt. Lima obviously has struggled, and he's important to this staff. Three-fifths of our starting rotation has two or fewer years experience, and one of them (Scott Elarton) is coming off surgery. It's showed."
Add to that the fact that the pitchers are being handled by a rookie catcher, Mitch Meluskey, and that the club has been using Roger Cedeno in center and Daryle Ward in left and there are further problems with experience. "What's been most disappointing is that we have played such poor defense," says Hunsicker. "We thought our defense would be pretty good. It hasn't been."
Dierker tried a few things this week. He sat Lima a start to try to work on his delivery and head. He moved Cedeno out of center field, a position the Mets felt he couldn't play anyway. He flip-flopped Cedeno and Craig Biggio in the batting order. Then he sat Tim Bogar, who had been struggling offensively, and started using Bill Spiers and Russ Johnson at shortstop.
Hunsicker also continues to refuse to use Enron as an excuse.
"Sure, there are some home runs here to left, but it's not the joke that some people have tried to make it out to be," he says. "It's not that bad. I don't think our pitchers have adjusted to using the deeper parts of the park. It's turned out that with all the nooks and angles that left field has turned out to be a more difficult field to play than we anticipated.
"Look, the adjustment going from a home park that was the toughest in which to homer to an offensive park is a major adjustment, but the ballpark is not what it's made out to be. A lot of teams have adjustments going into a new park."
Seattle, for instance, had to go through the same adjustment. Going from the hitter-friendly Kingdome into Safeco caused a lot of Mariner hitters to whine last season, but this year Safeco has turned out to be eminently fair.
Hunsicker thinks that as the Astros pitching straightens out and they learn to use the big parts of the park -- which Giants pitchers learned quickly with the huge area in right-center at Pac Bell Park -- things will calm down. As you can see from the chart below of runs and home runs per game per park through May 12, Enron Field is third behind Colorado and Toronto for homers and fifth behind Colorado, Toronto, Texas and Kansas City in runs per game.
"Maybe the pitching has something to do with it," says Hunsicker.
Incidentally, Hunsicker indicates that he has every intention of trying to sign Jeff Bagwell to a long-term contract. The Astros have an option on Bagwell for the 2001 season, and Hunsicker -- with owner Drayton McLane's permission -- will try to sign Bagwell to an extension after the season. Hunsicker also said he isn't worried about the fact that Bagwell will soon become a 10/5 man and can thus veto any trade.
"Bagwell is the person we want this franchise built around," says Hunsicker.
What that means to Moises Alou is another issue. Alou is signed at $5.25 million through next season, but it's unlikely that Houston will extend him. So, Alou could be traded over the winter -- or at the July 31 deadline if the club is far back out of it at that point. Alou has a small list of teams to which he can be traded to (Colorado, Florida, Cubs), but he might waive the clause if he went to a legitimate contender.
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