Astros hope to make unlikely takeoff based on youth, speed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- In brainstorming for ways to advertise the 1991 Houston Astros, the club's marketing department came up with a bumblebee. Aerodynamically, the bumblebee should not be able to fly.

Others campaigns feature a Volkswagen beetle, man's walk on the moon, the Spirit of St. Louis and Columbus' three ships. Note the trend.

"Our basic message is that there have been plenty of things succeed which people thought were unaccomplishable," said Ted Haracz, the Astros' vice president of marketing. "We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. We're just saying, 'Give us a chance.' "

And believing in the Astros this season is believing in the impossible.

In almost constant management turmoil for nearly 15 years -- from bankruptcy and receivership in the 1970s to John McMullen reign in the '80s to his announced intention to sell in the '90s -- the state of uncertainty has spread to the playing field.

Fourteen of the 28 players in uniform to start last season -- including six of the 11 pitchers -- are gone. Among the missing:

* Pitchers who accounted for 650 1/3 innings, 49 of 75 victories and 35 of 37 saves. Danny Darwin led the National League in ERA. Juan Agosto led NL relievers in appearances the past three years. Dave Smith is the club's all-time saves leader.

* The top three run producers last season, including Glenn Davis, the only Astro to hit 20 homers in six consecutive seasons, and Franklin Stubbs, who set a club record for left-handed hitters with 23 homers.

Eric Anthony, a rookie disappointment, is the only returning Astro who hit more than four home runs; he had 10 to go with a .192 average in 84 games. Ken Caminiti drove in 51 runs, the only player back who had more than 50 last season.

Mike Scott, long the ace of the Astros' starting rotation, has so far survived years of trade rumors, but his health is a major concern. He had surgery in December to "tighten up everything" in his right shoulder.

Veteran pitcher Jim Deshaies wore an added touch on his workout jersey for the opening day of spring camp. His plastic badge read, "Hello, I'm Jim Deshaies." A highlight of that first workout was browsing through the locker room and counting equipment bags from 11 organizations emptied by 27 pitching candidates.

Each division has a consensus pick to finish last each season. The Astros have taken that one step farther: They are a unanimous pick to finish last in the National League West.

L Even the Astros are upfront about the uncertain times ahead.

"It's impossible to predict what we're going to do," manager Art Howe said. "No one knows what we can do. I don't know. I do know the effort will be there. Guys are coming to camp ready to go. Each guy here knows he has a chance, and that's going to make each guy play with a higher degree of effort."

*

Most of the Astros' attrition came through free agency. Darwin and Smith were granted "second-look" free-agent status, part of the collusion settlement. Baseball owners were found to have improperly held down salaries by refusing to bid on other teams' free agents after the 1985-87 seasons.

The Astros had planned to retool their pitching staff gradually, pitching coach Bob Cluck said. Xavier Hernandez was the only pitcher on the opening day roster last year who didn't turn 30 before the All-Star break.

"But because of collusion, we rushed our plans along," Cluck said. "I don't think anybody plans to lose six pitchers from one year to the next, but we did."

The Astros lost players, but they hope they also won't lose money. Ex-Astros on the winter free-agent market landed $34 million in guaranteed money over a combined 15 years of contracts.

McMullen, a New Jersey resident whose absentee ownership has long been a sore subject in Houston, has taken more heat this time. Critics claim the Astros instituted cost-cutting -- at the expense of the on-field product -- so McMullen could increase his profits once he sells the club.

McMullen refused last week to discuss what's going on with his team. General manager Bill Wood, however, denied the events resulted from an ownership mandate.

"This had its roots long before he began to make plans to sell," Wood said. "That attitude gives no credit to the organization that has been built here, to the baseball people here for knowing what they are trying to do.

"We feel we have talented young people who will be able to contend when they get their feet on the ground. Look at Cincinnati, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Boston . . . they established a nucleus with home-grown players first and then supplemented it. You have to have the nucleus."

The Astros apparently weren't comfortable with their aging nucleus. After all, they won only 75 games last year and had to put on a strong second-half push to avoid last place.

And with the heavy winter free-agent losses, Wood decided to protect the club from another blow next fall, when Davis would have become eligible. The Astros traded him to Baltimore, hoping to fill needs for a starting pitcher (Pete Harnisch), right-handed short reliever (Curt Schilling) and center fielder (Steve Finley).

Wood knew the off-season moves would be less than popular, but the Astros have become accustomed to public backlash, he said.

"For 10 years, there has been a non-stop barrage against our owner," Wood said. "Maybe because of that we're not afraid of criticism in the media. We knew we were going to be criticized. Other clubs are afraid of that. They think the media criticism is going to affect their bottom-line position, so they take a stupid approach and kill the bottom line anyhow.

"There is a one-upmanship going on in baseball today, that's a reality, but it doesn't make it intelligent or proper for the future of our game."

*

The Astros, Wood says, began preparing for this kind of season shortly after the club promoted him to general manager in December 1987.

Wood beefed up the scouting staff and emphasized drafting pitchers. He even used Cluck for two years to cross-check each top eligible prospect. While the Astros have been known over the years for their pitching, they have developed few of their own. Only five drafted and signed by the Astros made the All-Star team (Bob Forsch, J.R. Richard, Joe Sambito, Floyd Bannister and Smith). Smith was the only member of the 1990 opening day staff originally signed by the club.

The piecemeal approach was successful for years but began to take a toll last season. The Astros had their fifth-highest ERA (3.61) in the past 15 years and gave up the most hits (1,450) since 1970. Their pitchers struck out only 854, their fewest since 1976, and gave up 130 home runs, fifth most in franchise history.

Richard and Scott are the only right-handers in NL history to strike out 300 in a season, but Mark Portugal led the Astros last year with 136

Wood said he decided it was time to take advantage of the renewed pitching emphasis in the draft. In June 1989, the Astros had used six of their 12 selections in the first 10 rounds on pitchers. Only once in franchise history had they taken more pitchers in 10 rounds.

This winter, the Astros stepped up the program. They had pitchers placed throughout the winter leagues. Ryan Bowen, Al Osuna, Nate Allen and Hernandez were with Tijuana in the Mexican Pacific League. Brent Strom, pitching coach at Houston's Class AAA Tucson affiliate, was on Tijuana staff.

"We know most of the young pitchers aren't going to be quite ready [for the majors] when the season opens, but we feel the position guys are closer and we're going to get them into the fire," Wood said.

For one thing, the Astros are confident a healthy Anthony can fight back from his rookie disappointments and give them a power-hitting right fielder. They only hope competition from Finley can resurrect Gerald Young.

Young was a phenom in 1988, his first full major-league season, when he hit .257 and stole 65 bases, but he has declined since.

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