Saturday, February 26, 2000

Astros still have look of a contender




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The most obvious difference in Jeff Bagwell is the ZZ Top starter kit. The hair on his chinny-chin-chin is unshaved since last season, and has grown long enough to serve as a landing strip for small birds.

        It gives the slugger a certain Old Testament look, as if his next swing might part the Red Sea as well as the innocent bystanders in left-center field. Like so many things about the Houston Astros, Bagwell's beard is the first thing you notice, but the last thing you need to know.

        Appearances are often deceiving with the Astros, who have won three straight division titles and not a single postseason series. The real news about Bagwell is not his whiskers, but his vision, dramatically improved by offseason laser surgery. The real story of Larry Dierker's camp may not be what his team has lost, but how much it has regained.

        Payroll-reduction deals that sent pitching ace Mike Hampton to the New York Mets and center fielder Carl Everett to the Boston Red Sox surely tightened the talent gap in the National League Central. But the prolific Moises Alou has returned after a full season on the disabled list and the swift Roger Cedeno has arrived from New York to revitalize the top of the batting order.

        Jose Lima returns from a 21-win season. Shane Reynolds is back with his extraordinary control. Pitching prodigy Scott Elarton, whose progress was interrupted by offseason shoulder surgery, threw off the mound for the first time Friday and was judged ahead of schedule. Billy Wagner remains the National League's best reliever.

Reds haven't won yet
        Ken Griffey Jr. notwithstanding, the Cincinnati Reds have nailed down nothing. There were no white flags fluttering at the Astros camp Friday, and no evidence of capitulation.

        “Contrary to some published reports, we are not forfeiting the season as a result of the Ken Griffey trade,” Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said. “One player doesn't make the difference between winning and losing. Kevin Brown hasn't taken the Dodgers to the promised land.”

        The Astros are still seeking their first World Series appearance, but consistently get a large bang from limited bucks. This year marks the third straight time they have lost their most accomplished pitcher from the previous season. Somehow, the right pieces keep falling into place.

        “You have to deal with what you have,” said second baseman Craig Biggio. “Cincinnati had no injuries last year and we had so many catastrophes. Our pitching carried us last year. Two years ago, our offense carried us. We just beat everybody up.”

        Bagwell and Biggio were the only Houston regulars who avoided the disabled list last season, yet the team persevered to 97 victories. Though the perception is that the Astros are the only team in the division that did not improve this winter, clubhouse sentiment holds that a healthier lineup can offset the loss of Hampton.

        “There are no easy wins in our division,” Bagwell said. “It's going to come down to starting pitching. Everybody should be concerned about their starting pitching with the offense in this division.”

Bagwell more dangerous
        While Griffey, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have become synonymous with slugging, Bagwell swatted 42 homers last season while playing his home games in the enclosed Astrodome. The Astros' move to Enron Field, with its shorter fences and retractable roof, ought to improve Bagwell's numbers. So could the corrective surgery which has enhanced his eyesight to 20/15 and enabled the first baseman to abandon the contact lenses he wore since seventh grade.

        Throughout his career, Bagwell has been forced to step out of the batter's box to adjust his contacts. When dirt became trapped beneath the lenses, he was sometimes unable to see the pitcher's face.

        “It's nice to have a clearer look on life,” Bagwell said. “I'm hoping this will be the year I'm able to see all year.”

        For that reason alone, the Astros rate a closer look.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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