Ken Oberkfell, 34 and a 14-year major league veteran, can handle the aches and pains of spring training, but he must cope with a more basic problem in the Houston Astros’ clubhouse.
Who are these guys? Where did they come from? Can they play?
“Hell, I’m still trying to meet everyone,” Oberkfell said.
Twenty of the 40 players on the Houston roster qualify as rookies. Of the 57 players in camp, 27 have less than one season’s major league experience and 35 have two or less. The roster’s average age of 26.7 is the youngest in baseball.
“I’m feeling pretty old,” Oberkfell said.
The Astros call it a youth movement, saying they have failed to win with veterans, 11 of whom have left through trade or free agency since Aug 31.
Others call it a fire sale designed to reduce the payroll and facilitate owner John McMullen’s attempt to sell the club.
There seems to be an element of truth in both views, but with openings at six lineup positions and the bullpen devoid of a proven closer, the Astros are likely to surpass last year’s 87 defeats.
--Glenn Davis, Franklin Stubbs and Glenn Wilson, who hit 55 of the Astros’ National League-low 94 home runs.
--Dave Smith, Danny Darwin, Juan Agosto, Bill Gullickson, Larry Andersen and Dan Schatzeder, who had 35 of the club’s 37 saves and 42 of the 75 victories.
Manager Art Howe puts his best face forward and says:
“How can people predict what we’re going to do when no one even knows who’s going to be on the team?
“Look at what the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox did the last two years. Sure, I don’t know how much talent we have, but there won’t be a team in either league that plays harder and that goes a long way. Enthusiasm can be contagious. We might shake things up.”
General Manager Bill Wood took a more pragmatic view in a recent interview. He reflected on the improvement in the National League West and said there was no way the Astros could avoid taking their lumps against “some of these megabuck clubs.”
He also said there was no sense in the Astros continuing to invest in a money market that is out of control, particularly when multiyear contracts do not necessarily ensure hustle and responsibility.
“We had been getting older as a club and not getting the job done,” he said. “There were changes that needed to be made, a process of rebuilding that we had been talking about for a couple of years. All of that being concurrent with the market escalation, a downturn in our financial fortunes and the fact that the club is for sale, the process has simply been accelerated.”
Decelerated in some ways. At a time when payrolls are doubling and tripling, Houston’s has dropped from $20 million last year to about $12 million. Wood estimated that the departure of the 11 players saved the Astros more than $50 million in multiyear salaries.
It did not, however, save the Astros from resentment among some of their few veterans, who reject management’s theory that older players who have multiyear contracts are likely to hustle less.
Mike Scott, the Astros’ bellwether pitcher, said he recently saw that Wood described the multiyear signings of players in their 30s as a tragedy.
“I have no problem with the course the club has taken,” Scott said. “If they want to rebuild with young players, fine. We were getting older, we hadn’t won and they were going to have to spend a lot of money or lose several guys as free agents. I think they were at a crossroads, whether the club was for sale or not. All of that I accept.
“But I think it’s a shame we didn’t get more players for a couple of those late fire sales, and what annoys me the most is when they start knocking the guys who are gone.
“I’m tired of all the insinuations that our million-dollar players didn’t play hard because I don’t know who they’re talking about and I don’t want anyone saying that about me if I leave. I can guarantee that a lot of teams will do well this year with players in their 30s who have multiyear contracts. The Oakland A’s are one.”
Said Jim Deshaies, another veteran pitcher: “The Astros have always been criticized for not having a plan. Now they have a plan, so I can’t knock it or react bitterly except that I don’t agree with their theory that veteran players don’t try or aren’t hungry. It’s ridiculous to say you can’t win with veterans.”
Deshaies said he is concerned about the Astros’ ability to compete after the sweeping changes.
“You’re going to have teams looking to get rich against us,” Deshaies said. “Can we respond? Who knows? Most of these kids have played only a few games in the majors, some of them none. It may take a year or two to get a definitive answer.”
The Astros have invested heavily in their farm system in recent years and boast several acknowledged prospects, but will they choke if force-fed in 1991?
“A lot of people may be surprised by the amount of talent here and how well we do, but we won’t be surprised,” said first base candidate Mike Simms, a graduate of Esperanza High in Anaheim and considered the favorite to replace the power-hitting Davis.
Is there pressure in that?
“Some people may think so, but I don’t,” Simms said. “I can only do what I can do. I’m not going to put pressure on myself by trying to do more. I was surprised, like everybody else, that they let so many veterans go, but it’s a great opportunity for the young players.”
Only catcher Craig Biggio, shortstop Eric Yelding and third baseman Ken Caminiti are ensured positions. The Astros may start rookies at first base, second base and all three positions in the outfield.
The departure of Smith and Agosto nearly depleted the bullpen and left Howe thinking he may have to seek relief by committee. A rotation of Scott, 35 and coming off shoulder surgery; Deshaies, Mark Portugal and Pete Harnisch, who was obtained from the Orioles in the Davis trade, is one pitcher short, even if Scott is physically sound.
Said Oberkfell: “Any of these kids who don’t give their best trying to take advantage of this opportunity are in the wrong profession. Hey, I want a shot, too.”
Said Howe, whose 1990 team was last in the league in runs and hits and finished 26-55 on the road:
“To be successful, we’re going to have to do a lot of things right, which is why we’re concentrating on fundamentals here. The fact no one expects much of us should be an incentive, but it’s important that we get off to a good start so that they don’t begin to doubt their ability.”
The three Orioles obtained in the Davis trade--pitcher Curt Schilling, whose three major league saves entitle him to first crack at the closer role; center fielder Steve Finley, a defensive specialist, and Harnisch, an 11-game winner last year--can assure the Astros that anything is possible.
The Orioles, after all, lost 107 games in 1988. Then--primarily young and untested--they came within one game of winning the 1989 division title.
Some Astros weren’t thinking about a history lesson when Davis was traded, however. Portugal, for one, called it a bad deal and said he didn’t want to be on a team that might be 40 games behind at the All-Star break.
“Neither do I,” Schilling said the other day. “I just want people to give us a chance to show what we can do before making up their mind.”
Will Houston fans do that? Attendance dropped to 1.3 million last year and is expected to go lower.
“Frankly, our club has become a public relations disaster,” Wood said.
Much of it stems from the lamentable decision to let the Texas Rangers win the free-agent bidding for Nolan Ryan, who had spent nine seasons with the Astros.
McMullen is seeking at least $95 million for his restructured team or nearly $200 million if the Astrodome lease is included.
His handling of the situation has been criticized by the Houston media, who contend that no one will buy the team without the lease since no one would want McMullen, portrayed as abrasive and arrogant, as a landlord.
The most recent attacks, which led McMullen to describe that city’s news corps as vicious and stupid, were prompted by his booking of the 1992 Republican national convention into the Astrodome.
The commitment, if unchanged, will force the Astros to go on the road for 27 days or play some home games elsewhere. By then, of course, the remaining Astro fans may consider that a blessing.