Sunday, February 19, 2006

Pitchers & Catchers!

Baseball's back! Finally! It's been a cold and miserable weekend in Houston, but my heart is aglow with baseball fever. Oh, what joy I felt when I saw Roy, Brad, Andy and Brandon in Astro uniforms again! It really was a surreal moment knowing that the next eight months will be filled with our great national pasttime.

It has been a weird offseason, both for the Astros and the Wade family. The team didn't do a whole heck of a lot, making their customary conservative and modest — if not downright boring — moves like adding Trever Miller and re-signing Brad Ausmus. We took a gamble not offering Clemens arbitration, but I truly think he's only seriously considering two clubs: the Astros or the AARP. Our most productive move was the addition of Preston Wilson. He immediately improves our lineup ad our bench, but his presence alone won't solve our offensive woes.

In the Wade family, things were a little more shaken up. Jack will have a big decision coming up after graduating this Spring. The parents will be joining him after buying a house in Flagstaff this week. Andy, meanwhile, will be the lone Texas representative come summer after taking a job with a newspaper in Bryan.

But back to our favorite ball club. In the Chronicle and on local television coverage, all the pitchers and catchers mentioned the short offseason, referring to the extra month of baseball they played in the playoffs.

Chad Qualls: "It came too quick. This is the shortest offseason I've ever had. … I might actually need these six weeks to get back into shape a little bit."

Mike Gallo: "It feels like I just got done playing about a month ago."

What are these guys talking about? To me, it feels like years since the World Series ended. I've been waiting months for Spring Training, and it'll probably feel like another few months 'til the season actually starts.

Pettitte specifically mentioned the absence of his partner in crime: "For the last seven years we've been sidekicks. There's no doubt I miss him being down here, for sure." Many players, coaches and regular folks around Houston appear confident Clemens will return in May, but it's anything but a sure thing. He says he won't know until after the WBC if he's going to play, so we'll just have to wait it out...

A few hilarious tidbits from Kissimmee:

• Garner received a gift from a friend in Russia: a bulava, which is a war club with a sharp points on the head (think Final Fantasy). "It's a symbol of power," Garner said. "I'm going to use this on reporters and players." (Sometimes I think Richard Justice could use a little macing…)

• Garner also didn't recognize Russ Springer when he walked into the manager's office. "Wheels? Did you lose some weight?" Garner asked, referring to Dan Wheeler. Apparently Garner's old anf confused and sometimes mixes up those two. Hope that never happends during close games.

Chris Burke was the first position player to roll into camp. Of of our hitters, I think Burke has the most to prove. Right now, he's our No. 1 option off the bench if anyone gets hurt. He's doesn't have a starting job this year (or even a platoon position), so he's got to earn every at-bat he gets. Burke has been asked to play shortstop on occasion this spring in addition to second base and the outfield.

The Chronicle had a nice piece on Lidge's mentality heading into 2006. He's saying all the right things and really doesn't seem upset on his disappointing postseason. Unlike everyone else, he's more focused on the upcoming season than the finished one.

Lastly, I'll list some random personal thoughts about Spring Training and the season as a whole:

• Don't simply ignore the elephant in the room that is Bagwell's shoulder. He should be examined and cleared to participate before every workout. He's a great player but also a very large investment, and we need to make sure he's taken care of. And if he's unable to participate, an ultimatum has to be reached.

• The back of the rotation should be open to everyone. In my mind, neither Wandy nor Zeke pitched well enough last year to earn "frontrunner" status entering 2006. Give Hernandez, Hirsh and Nieve equal opportunities to prove themselves.

• Let Preston Wilson play some centerfield. I know he'd be a disaster in The Juicebox, what with all the nooks and crannies. But If Bagwell can play, Taveras should under no circumstances take at-bats away from Lane or Wilson.

• See what the younguns can do. Luke Scott played like a bat out of hell in Venezuela. If he keeps it up, how can we leave him off our roster?

• Backe finally has pressure on him. Right now, he's our third starter, which means he needs to be a) good and b) reliable. Everyone knows he can pitch great games, but he has yet to pitch well throughout a whole season. It's about time he chanelled his playoff energy into every start. If he can't, he might not have a chance to make another great postseason start.

• Lastly, Ausmus and Everett better recognize that we almost replaced them this winter, and for good reason: They can't hit. I am sick to death of the "defense-minded" cop-out. It's fine if Ausmus doesn't hit for much power, but he needs to contribute at the plate by having good at-bats, taking pitches, making contact and driving the ball. He did this last year, but can he keep it up? And I wish Everett would finally get it through his head that we don't want him hitting home runs. We need him to get on base, and that means not trying to pull the ball all the time. Hell, take a bunting lesson from Willy. Get. On. Base.

I just finished watching the NBA All-Star Game. It was cool being in Houston and all, but the actual game was preposterous. I think Shaq dunked a ball in the fourth quarter and hung on the rim until his team came back to his end of the court. Admittedly, the game meant absolutetly nothing. Also admittedly, basketball is something of a showboat sport, at least more so than baseball. Players often hang on rims and pump up the crowd with various antics. This never happens in baseball. The closest thing I can think of is Barry Bonds lifting up Torii Hunter for robbing him of a home run. But at least that was between innings. In the MLB All-Star game, people watch to see great players play baseball, and it's often a great game. In the NBA All-Star game, many people watch to see a great game, but at least as many watch to see who's going to bring down the house with a huge dunk or a stylish lay-up. This isn't necessarily a bad thing — I don't think it takes away from the game either way — but the NBA ASG seems like more of a laugher than anything else. At least in baseball, they play for home-field advantage, but I don't think this would change a whole lot in the NBA. Oh well...

Spring Training!

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