Out of Left Field
Texas Major League Baseball Wraps Up the Season That Wasn't
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... uh, no, it was just the worst of times. At the end of the 2000 major league baseball season, both the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers can only look for silver linings in dismal years.
The principal good news for the Astros? They have avoided finishing their first post-Astrodome season with the worst record in baseball -- a position they commanded until August 25. They also witnessed the emergence of several quality young players and another superb season from perennial All-Star Jeff Bagwell.
Oh, but the bad news ... the Astros' had an abysmal, embarrassing campaign marred not only by injuries but by sloppy play, bitter clubhouse sniping, and glaring individual underachievement to go along with deeply flawed management decisions. After trading away its best pitcher and best everyday player of 1999 over the winter, the team was ravaged by injury after injury. Though the team as a whole played much better after the All-Star Break than before it, the job of righting the ship will be a tall order for Houston's management over the winter.
Houston's struggles have been more painful when compared to their recent successes. Astros manager Larry Dierker seemed like a genius while the team was winning its division each of the prior three seasons. In 2000, though, it seemed that Dierker could do nothing right. Along the way, he became a lightning rod for criticism from players who blamed him in various ways for the team's poor play.
One noted critic was ace relief pitcher Billy Wagner. One of baseball's most dominant closers since 1997, Wagner strung together several of the worst games of his career before bowing out on June 18 for elbow surgery. While the discovery of tendon damage accounted for the loss of his usually good control, by then he had blown late leads and suffered the embarrassment of being demoted by Dierker from the closer's role. Ace relievers are some of the most competitive and proud players in all of sports, since the nature of their role means that any failure on their part usually leads directly to a loss for the team. Wagner blamed no one for his struggles on the mound, but was vocal in his criticism of Dierker's handling of the situation. Many observers agreed that Dierker and his coaches should have been much quicker to have Wagner tested for hidden injuries before the situation came to such a head.
The Astros coaching staff was faced with an even more vexing problem in the case of injury-free Jose Lima, a 21-game winner last year who put up a historic streak of losses early in the year and who broke the National League record for home runs allowed in a season (he gave up 48). His second half was better, but it often seemed that the hyperexpressive Lima had forgotten how to pitch and how to win.
Certainly, Lima and other Houston pitchers suffered from the hopped-up offensive atmosphere of the Astros' deluxe new "mallpark," Enron Field. The air-conditioned Astrodome was a pitcher's paradise, a place where it took a mammoth blast to hit the ball out of the yard. Despite the aesthetic horrors of its artificial turf, the 'Dome favored the sort of low-scoring games that many baseball purists (or reactionaries) pine for in this age of inflated scores -- contests centered on the single, the bunt, the hit-and-run, the stolen base. Enron Field, by contrast, fits right in with the rest of modern baseball's offensive extravaganza.
An aside on Enron Field: Enron is the largest power wholesaler in the country, as well as the largest buyer and seller of natural gas. It's in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 and did over $40 billion in sales last year. It will pay millions over the coming years for the privilege of putting its name all over the Astros' home park. Meanwhile, around 90% of the $248 million pricetag of the stadium is being footed by taxpayers. The naming-rights fees go to Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., who paid $115 million for the team in 1992. So, a gigantic corporation pays peanuts, relatively, to advertise itself semipermanently on a publicly funded building that is under the control of a private citizen. Welcome to modern baseball.
To their credit, Lima and the rest of the Astros did not blame their problems on Enron field. After all, they have sluggers, too -- in fact, they broke the all-time record for team home runs in one season, thanks in large part to Enron's hot, humid atmosphere and cozy left-field dimensions.
Astros pitching would have suffered less had it not been for a much-criticized deal last winter that sent ace lefty Mike Hampton (along with streaky right fielder Derek Bell) to the New York Mets in return for pitcher Octavio Dotel and speedster outfielder Roger Cedeño. Dotel's performance was mixed but not bad; Cedeño played long enough to prove he's not a true center fielder, then missed over half the season with a leg injury. Meanwhile, Hampton overcame a shaky April to be a maneater in the Mets rotation.
The Hampton trade was only half the story of Houston's controversial trades last winter. Center fielder Carl Everett, who was probably the best everyday player for the Astros last season, was traded for a minor-leaguer. In Boston, Everett has weathered controversy brought on by his own mouth and temper while enjoying a campaign that places him in the elite class of baseball's current center fielders.
These trades are particularly galling to Astros fans since they were justified in part by claims of poverty. Astros management claimed they would not have the money to re-sign free agents-to-be Hampton or Everett after this season. This logic seems to run aground when one considers the vast enhancements to Astros revenue deriving from Enron Field, what with naming rights, enhanced concessions and shopping, and, oh yes, substantially increased ticket prices. But again, this is the big business of baseball we're talking about.
While their pitching rotation went into the tank, the Astros have been able to make up for Everett's departure thanks to an unusual glut of excellent young outfielders. Even with the injury to Cedeño, Dierker was spoiled for choice by 25-year-old Richard Hidalgo, 24-year-old Lance Berkman, and 25-year-old Daryle Ward, all of whom have proven that they can pound the ball. While Berkman and Ward are limited defensively, Hidalgo was able to make the transition from left field to center field and emerged as a star. Dierker's biggest outfield problem this year was finding playing time for these youngsters alongside veteran Moises Alou, who returned to the lineup with a bang after missing all of 1999 with injuries.
Hidalgo, Berkman, and Ward could be the heart of the Astros lineup for years to come. They will likely be joined by standout rookie catcher Mitch Meluskey, who lacks polish in his defensive game but is impressive at the plate. Two rookie infielders, Julio Lugo and Chris Truby, look solid as steady bench or platoon players. And 24-year-old pitcher Scott Elarton did a fine job in his first full season as a starter. He led the team in wins and could be an anchor of the Astros rotation for the next decade.
The Astros might well bounce back from this season of horrors to contend again next year: if Wagner returns to dominance when healthy ... if Biggio can prove he isn't on the downside of his career ... if Caminiti can stay healthy and provide some value ... if their young players continue to mature ... if they can clear up their glut in the outfield ... if they can re-sign Jeff Bagwell to a long-term deal without breaking the bank ... and if they can catch up with the talent-loaded St. Louis Cardinals, who could be the class of the division for at least another year or two.
Good luck, fellas -- you'll need it.
Considering how well the Rangers played early in the season, it's hard to believe that they finished with a record so similar to Houston's. While the Astros seemed to be in disarray from day one, the Rangers fielded a competitive team throughout the year. Unfortunately, they needed solid play from every available man because of the string of tough-luck injuries that afflicted the team throughout its first post-Juan Gonzalez season.
The Rangers' Opening Day outfield of Rusty Greer, Ruben Mateo, and Gabe Kapler got to start fewer than a dozen games together during the season. Greer, so steady for so long in left field, finally wore down and required surgery to repair a bum ankle. Kapler, who has the musculature and chin of Superman, suffered a variety of aches and pains that had him in and out of the lineup for weeks. Worst of all was the bizarre season-ending injury to phenom rookie center fielder Mateo, who broke his leg horribly while running out a routine ground ball. He required extensive surgery and faces an arduous rehabilitation process to give himself the hope of returning next year.
The true season-ending injury for the team -- another fluke mishap -- came on July 24, when all-world catcher Ivan Rodriguez broke his hand while trying to throw out a baserunner at second. Rodriguez, who was putting up even better numbers than he did last year when he was named AL MVP, has vowed to come back better than ever. That will be hard to do, since he's been playing at a level of all-around excellence for a catcher that probably only Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench have matched.
While everyone waits to see how Rodriguez performs upon his return next year, the big question this season was how the Rangers would perform after their epic trade of two-time AL MVP Juan Gonzalez. In that trade, the Rangers received Kapler, second baseman Frank Catalanotto, injured pitcher Justin Thompson, relief pitcher Francisco Cordero, and catcher Bill Haselman. At the end of the season, the trade looks like a long-term winner for the Rangers and an absolute boner for the hapless Tigers management.
Kapler looked very mortal after homering twice on Opening Day, especially as folks compared him to the departed Gonzalez, whose position in right field he took over. Such comparisons are inherently unfair, as Rangers broadcasters did a good job of explaining, if only because Kapler is a youngster whose best days lie ahead of him, whereas Gonzalez is a veteran who has had years to compile impressive statistics. (Besides, he's grossly overrated, having deserved neither of his MVP awards.) Kapler helped his own cause with Ranger fans by playing a hard-nosed, full-bore style of baseball and by compiling an impressive 28-game hitting streak in July and August. He even moved over to center field, unimaginable for the defensively challenged Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, Cordero was a contributor to the bullpen, Haselman filled in admirably for Rodriguez, and Catalanotto proved to be a dangerous hitter. All in all, the Rangers must be happy with the Gonzalez trade, especially since Gonzalez has been underwhelming (and often injured) in Detroit and has turned down huge contract offers from the Tigers. Rumor has it that he may want to re-sign with the Rangers this offseason -- even if it's for less money than the Tigers offered him. If that happens, the Rangers will look even smarter, and the Tigers even dumber, for executing The Big Trade.
The Rangers had less success with their other trading business. Unable to re-sign free-agent third baseman Todd Zeile, they got mixed performances from rookies and journeymen at the hot corner. The Rangers were also involved in a trade that brought them first baseman/designated hitter David Segui. While the deal looked solid at the time, the Rangers traded Segui to the Indians late in the season.
Many observers thought that they would have -- indeed, should have -- also dealt veteran second baseman Luis Alicea and closer John Wetteland to contenders before the trading deadline. The Rangers must have received only poor trade offers indeed to run the risk that they could lose Alicea and Wetteland without compensation over the winter. To their credit, the Rangers did cut bait on Esteban Loiaza, a pitcher of uncommon physical gifts and alarming mental lapses who continued to frustrate Rangers fans with his inconsistency until he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in July.
The Rangers have no such trading worries about Greer and Rafael Palmeiro, who, along with Ivan Rodriguez, should continue to make up the heart of the team's batting order for a few more years. While Greer lost substantial time to injury, the ageless Palmeiro continued to put up steady, impressive numbers, now doing it without the protection of Gonzalez batting behind him. This season, Palmeiro passed 400 home runs, 2,300 hits, 1,200 runs, 450 doubles, 1,300 runs batted in, and 900 walks -- good marks for the end of a career, much less for a man with more good seasons ahead of him.
The Rangers should be much better next season, assuming they can keep their lineup healthy, continue to develop their young pitchers, and get some help for pitching stalwarts Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers. Even then, their climb back to the top of the AL West will be challenged by very good teams in Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle. As with the Astros, their 2001 club will face a lot of "ifs." But here's hoping for better, um, breaks for the Rangers next year.