Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on March 27, 2001.
Train Wreck 2000 – The Astros’ pathetic inaugural display at Enron Field at Union Station.
While many in the Astros organization spent the last six months trying to wake up from that nightmare, Gerry Hunsicker had to relive it over and over to decide what had to be done to keep it from happening again. Much of his work goes on in the offseason, and it was his responsibility to use that time to ensure the Astros do not suffer a similar fate in 2001: A Baseball Odyssey. Here Brushback begins to openly wonder what hath Gerry wrought.
The most obvious need identified by the Hun was pitching, as the 2000 Astros suffered through the single most embarrassing staff performance in club history. There were a few bright spots, like 22-year-old right-hander Tony McKnight’s welcome showing (4-1, 3.86 in 6 starts). Gritty character on the mound and exceptional command netted Outlaw Scott Elarton an admirable 17 victories. Before his back cried no mas, Shane Reynolds’ performance earned him an overdue but respectful nod to the All-Star team from Bobby “Barefoot, Kitchen” Cox. By and large however, Astros pitching was a debacle in 2000.
Gerry Hunsicker clearly believed the unreliable bullpen was the chief culprit. Through the season and beyond he punched the tickets of practically everyone in the pen. A few notable dogies from 2000 continue to range the Open Star Ranch in Billy Wagner, Jay Powell, Wayne Franklin, and Jose Cabrera. Billy the Kid and Stonewall Powell have both been solid to amazing performers in the past and now look to come back strong after surgery. It would be a stretch to call Cabrera or Franklin solid, but they are young and likely as good as anyone’s eleventh and twelfth pitchers.
So long to Mike Maddux, as The Professor’s smarter brother stays on as the pitching coach for the AA Round Rock Express. Thanks but no thanks went out to Marc Exxon Valdes and Everyman Joe Slusarski, neither of which was offered a deal to stay with Houston and both of whom spent their springs trying to stick with the malignant Atlanta Braves. Alas, poor Yorkis Perez seems intent on remaining left-handed; thus he remains in baseball, but fortunately not as an Astro. Jason Green got his papers and got picked up by the Rockies – last report has him out with an arm injury. And adios to Nitro. After the trade that simultaneously brought Scott Linebrink to the Astros organization and relieved the TalkZone of its most annoying mantra until one man’s discovery that Julio Lugo can rake, Danger Doug Henry soaked a few innings for the Giants – and a couple of homerun balls in the bay – before an offseason deal sent him clucking to Kansas City.
To caulk these gaps in the pen the Hun has taken some gambles. In the controversial trade that sent Chris “No Fear” Holt, Roger “The Excuse” Cedeno, and Mitch “Expletive Deleted” Meluskey to Motown, he bargained for Nelson Cruz and Doug Brocail along with Brad Ausmus. Then he went out and signed free agents Mike Jackson and Kent Bottenfield.
Doug Brocail is one tough hombre. His no-nonsense demeanor on the mound has earned him kudos from teammates everywhere he’s been, and alleged baseball expert Peter Gammons puts him in his top ten of baseball’s clubhouse guys. Besides intangibles though, Brocail brings a track record of exceptional performance. Over the last four seasons – three of which were in Tiger Stadium – Brocail averaged 60 appearances, 68 innings, a 3.07 ERA (to the league’s roughly 4.75 over the same stretch), and a better than 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.
Pitching with pain from elbow inflammation, Brocail fell off from stellar to simply good last season. Surgery to remove loose bodies from his right elbow brought an early end to his 2000 and was a contributing factor in the Tigers’ willingness to deal him. Now the Astros are the team hoping he can rebuild the arm strength to continue to post good numbers. Brocail’s experience and skill should allow him to remain highly effective even if he never regains his full prior velocity. He keeps homeruns and baserunners to a minimum, has outstanding command, and knows how to work professional hitters. Perhaps most importantly, his attitude about pitching at Enron Field can be summed up in two words: big deal.
Despite his regal surname, Nelson Cruz is something of a wildcard. Twenty-eight years of age is a little late to break out, yet Cruz did it in style last season. He posted a 5-2 record and 3.07 ERA in relief for the Tigers after several years as an iffy starter prospect in their system. Hopefully relief work is his niche and it has just taken him a long time to get the opportunity to find it. A bad minor league starter with a good arm often becomes a reliever, and a good starter sometimes becomes a reliever through necessity on the big club, but mediocre starters like Cruz can get lost in the shuffle. However circuitously he got here though, Cruz has arrived. Yet no matter how good it was, the small sample provided last season should cause fans to suspend judgement, though the Astros believe 2000 was no fluke for Cruz and will give him every opportunity to be successful in Houston.
If Nelson Cruz is a wildcard, Mike Jackson makes it a pair of jokers. Jackson spent all of last season on the shelf after shoulder surgery before the season, so the market was thin when Astros made a hometown offer to the venerable righty. Getting his arm strength back is tedious work, but Jackson has had some solid spring outings, and he would really have to fall off from even his current level to resemble some of the detritus that filled the pen for the Astros last season.
The 6’2″ Jackson has had a tremendous career, spanning 14 seasons, 835 games and over a thousand innings. Many Astros fans are not familiar with him because he’s spent much of his career on the West Coast and in the American League, but Jackson’s ERA of 3.26 is about a run better than the league’s for his career. After years as a fantastic setup man, he became the full-time closer for the Indians during 1997 and responded with 79 saves in the next two seasons. Those same two seasons were Billy Wagner’s best – he posted 69 saves. If Mike Jackson is right, the Astros could flirt with having the best pen in the league; at a minimum they will have an option besides Dotel if Wagner cannot get back to form.
Big Kent Bottenfield gets mention here as he seems slated to work long relief in some capacity before the 2001 season is said and done. No chicanery like calling his stuff an arsenal will fly, but he can spot the ball, knows the hitters, works smart, and is willing to do anything on the field to get back to the form that allowed him to win 18 games for a mediocre St. Louis club in 1999. At 32, Bottenfield has relatively little wear on his arm because of usage patterns, so age should not be a concern. Nor should the bulk he’s been pitching with for years. For the first time in a while the Astros enter the season with a decent fifth starter/long relief option.
There is probably nothing more demoralizing to a team than failing to hold reasonably solid leads, and all signs point to a huge improvement there. It did not take a full season at Enron to show how important the bullpen between starter and closer is in today’s game. Totaling the ledger shows the Astros losing lone veteran contributor Doug Henry from the pen and a slew of guys who will likely spend 2001 in the minors, and gaining Mike Jackson, Doug Brocail, Nelson Cruz, and the option of Kent Bottenfield. To a man, these guys are hounded by question marks, just as Wagner and Powell are as they return from surgery. But Astro fans have every reason to hope, as even three of these six being effective would be three more than they had last season. Early returns give Gerry Hunsicker high marks for stitching together this potential monster. One way or another, it will be scary.