01/31/2003 11:19 am ET
Astros Spring Training preview
Offensive improvement key to contending in 2003
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
MLB Radio preview
Kent 'at peace' as an Astro
Osceola County Stadium
HOUSTON -- While it's true that pitching wins championships, it should also be noted that it's hard to get very far if the offense takes a collective year off.
But that's exactly what happened to the Houston Astros in 2002 and if they want to contend in '03, production at the plate must improve.
Take a look at the numbers and it's not hard to figure out why the Astros failed to reach the postseason for only the second time in six years last season. In '01, they won 93 games. In '02, they won 84. In '01, they scored 847 runs. In '02, they scored only 749 -- an alarming dropoff of 98 runs.
In '01, the team batting average was .271. In '02, only .262. Homers were also down from 208 in '01 to 167 in '02.
For a team built around offense that plays in a hitter-friendly downtown ballark, the decrease in run production is unsettling.
"It's much easier to point fingers at pitching inadequacies, but the fact is that the strength of this club has been, and still should be, offense," general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "No matter how good a pitching staff we have, it would be very difficult to win this year unless the offense rebounds significantly."
There are plenty of reasons to believe things will be better in '03. Jeff Bagwell will be healthier, Richard Hidalgo will be in better shape and Jeff Kent ... well, he'll simply be wearing an Astros uniform.
Bagwell battled through constant pain last season after shoulder surgery and struggled with activities that in the past were second nature to him. Barring unexpected setbacks, the club expects to see a Bagwell more like the one we watched during the first 11 years of his career.
Hidalgo could be an intriguing story in '03. With two years remaining on his four-year contract, Hidalgo has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that earned him a $32 million deal in the first place. Some have speculated that he's trying to hard to prove worthy of such a rich contract. Other theories suggest his excessive weight-lifting two years ago thwarted his agility at the plate.
According to Hunsicker, Hidalgo improved his conditioning routine and has lost some weight as a result. More importantly, the 27-year-old right fielder also has recovered well after being shot in the forearm in a car-jacking incident in November.
"He's been working very hard, and he's very focused and very motivated to bounce back," Hunsicker said. "He's young, he's talented and there's just no part of the equation that I can find to suggest that this player won't bounce back.
"I personally think his problems have been more from the neck up than the neck down. Plus, the weight and muscle mass that he added a couple of years ago have hurt him physically. He seems to have taken steps to rectify that. I think we are going to see a very determined young man when he comes to Spring Training."
Last year, it was largely up to Hidalgo and Daryle Ward to assume some offensive responsibility after the Astros parted ways with Moises Alou and Vinny Castilla. Hidalgo batted .235 and eventually lost his starting job to left-handed hitting Orlando Merced, while Ward, unimpressive defensively, also produced offensive numbers far below expectations. In 136 games, he hit only 12 homers with 72 RBIs. In January, the Astros traded him to the Dodgers in exchange for a pitching prospect.
"Hidalgo and Ward were obviously two of the bigger problems last year offensively," Hunsicker said. "Coming into the offseason, the question was did we have reason to think they are going to rebound and give us the production we thought they were going to give us before last year, or do we need to do something?"
For economic reasons, the Astros weren't serious about acquiring an impact offensive player on the free agent market. Then along came Kent, whose desire to come to Houston was strong enough that a reasonable deal was made. And overnight, the Astros became a team whose lineup should be one of the best in the league.
"The fact that the Kent siutation developed has really played out well for us," Hunsicker said. "It's enabled us to significantly improve an area of our club that has really been a weakness.
"With a proven run producer like Kent added to the lineup, with or without contribution from Hidalgo, we should have a very powerful offense. But now, the exciting thing is that with a rebound from Richard, this could be one of the most dangerous offenses in baseball."
As is the case with most teams heading into Spring Training, the Astros' chances to win the division are surrounded by ifs. They can win if Bagwell returns to form, if Kent is as good as he was over six years with the Giants, if Hidalgo finally comes around, if players other than Jose Vizcaino hit .300 or better.
If potential translates into production, the Astros just may play in October once again.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.