Astros Arms Racing to Heal Injuries
HOUSTON – The clock is ticking on the Houston Astros pitching staff.
General manager Gerry Hunsicker has put together a bullpen with potential to be very effective to replace last year’s disastrous performance that helped the Astros end their string of three straight NL Central Division titles.
The problem: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 15 and four bullpen performers and starting pitcher Shane Reynolds are coming off injuries.
“I’ve certainly opened the case for the critics,” Hunsicker said, laughing. “But I’m very optimistic. I feel like we addressed the critical area of our team, namely pitching. Our starting rotation is going to have to come together and possibly exceed their expectations.”
Billy Wagner, the NL’s Fireman of the Year two seasons ago, is coming off surgery to repair a partially torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow.
Reynolds, an NL All-Star last season, will miss his first opening day start in five years while recovering from surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee suffered while jogging in the off season.
The Astros signed closer Mike Jackson to a one-year contract even though the former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher missed all of last season following arthroscopic surgery to repair a slap lesion in his right shoulder.
Setup men Jay Powell and Doug Brocail also are recovering from operations. Brocail, obtained in an off-season trade with the Detroit Tigers, had surgery to remove loose tissue from his pitching elbow last Sept. 22. Powell had arthroscopic surgery last Aug. 29.
“It doesn’t matter if you have A-Rod or Ken Griffey Jr., whomever, if you don’t pitch and play defense, you don’t win,” manager Larry Dierker said. “So it’s good to get (Craig) Biggio and (Jeff) Bagwell and all the offensive guys but we still have to pitch better than last year if we want to get to the post season.”
Wagner’s recovery will be a key to the Astros bullpen success and Hunsicker likes the pre-spring training scouting report.
“Billy has been throwing off the mound since October and has had no setbacks at all,” Hunsicker said. “I expect him to go into spring training with no restrictions, really, not anticipating any problems. His velocity has been back 100 per cent for several months. ”
From a 4-1 record and 1.57 ERA and 39 saves in 1999, Wagner devolved to a 2-4 record with a 6.18 ERA and only six saves last season, trying to pitch through the injury. It was a bad year for the entire staff, which compiled a 5.42 ERA, second-worst in the major leagues.
“With a potent offense and improved defense and a much improved bullpen, we can overcome whatever inconsistencies we have in our rotation,” Hunsicker said. “Recovering from injuries certainly will play a key role in our success but I believe we are taking a team to spring training that has the ability to contend.”
Prior to last season, Jackson’s numbers compared favorably with Wagner for closing out games. Jackson had 94 saves as the Cleveland Indians closer from 1997 to 1999. He has a career 138 saves and 3.26 ERA. The Astros reacquired catcher Brad Ausmus in the offseason and Dierker is glad to have him back.
“He’s the most important move to date,” Dierker said. “His performance will affect 11 other guys (pitchers). That can be a major impact. But what if we get to July and look back and Wagner has had a setback and Jackson has 18 saves. Well, that would be the most important thing that we did.”