February 2007

And the nominees are…

I know this is not baseball-related but tomorrow is Oscar Night and I haven’t been able to stop laughing at Ellen DeGeneres and her parody of the Spaniard movie Volver, nominated for Best Foreign Language Movie. Volver is directed by Pedro Almodovar, and his movies are, well…. how to say it… artsy? incomprehensible for the mere mortal who is not a critic for The New York Times? So that’s why I find it even funnier. Watch.

Million-dollar questions

Ocs_signYesterday, we were invited once again to talk Astros baseball with Uri Berenguer in the Solamente Pelota show at XM Radio’s MLB en español. If you haven’t heard it yet, you should. Three hours a day, five days a week of nothing but baseball in Spanish. Those hours fly by, if you will.

We were there for half an hour, and to be honest, those questions Uri did to us didn’t fly away from our minds. 24 hours later, we still try to get to them. They look quite simple; although, the more you think about them, the tougher they become.

We’ve been reading the fine job Alyson Footer and Jim Molony are doing at astros.com; and Joshua at Crawfish Boxes (this picture is his, by the way). They give us an idea of the mood at Kissimmee (sometimes cold, ouch).

So in that same sprit, we take on those question Uri asked us yet again:

Will Roy Oswalt rise to the occasion as new leader of the pitching staff?

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not just the consistency, which he already has. Not the numbers. He has showed them already. It’s something beyond his mere performance on the mound. It’s becoming mentor to those new kids on the block (eventually a Troy Patton, Matt Albers, Lincoln Holdzkom, etc), the new arrivals (Jason Jennings, Miguel Ascencio, Woody Williams) and those who sorta know their way around (Fernando Nieve, Ezequiel Astacio). Being the glue that holds it all together.

It’s not easy to think about Oswalt as such. He’s very reserved and private for that. Nothing wrong with being that way, but many of us, especially Latinos, have this image of the flamboyant and loud "team leader". He doesn’t have to bring a boom box to the clubhouse to do just that. But it is also true that Oswalt is a true pro and is quite conscious of his current state of being at the Astros. Who knows. Maybe we’ll be surprised.

How do you see the rotation stacking up today?

Hold your horses here. It’s merely a few days since pitchers and catchers reported, with a level of expectation rarely seen, and do you want me to give you already who I think will be the starting five for Opening Week?

Not a chance. It wouldn’t be honest from me, and really, it’d be quite a waste if I try to come up with things out of nowhere. I don’t think anyone knows. No one has a sure place, except for Oswalt, at least for Week 1. It’d be quite logical to think of a rotation of Oswalt, Jennings, Williams and two prospects to be named later or two guys who know a thing or two (Nieve or Wandy).

Even worse yet: Maybe Jennings and Williams will not be there for that initial week. They will be for sure, but it’s uncertain that they’ll be there from the starting point. I talked to a friend yesterday and she agreed with me. No one has a sure place in this mix, for now. The rotation looks like an ever-changing work in progress, from what I see.

A position player who will make the difference?

Another toughie. It might be Carlos Lee. In fact, he was hired to do just that, help bring a new pace to an anemic offense. It might be Luke Scott, who arrived to camp in an improved, corrected Men’s Health version. Or Chris Burke. Richard Hidalgo came to give an intriguing twist to the case of the Congested Outfield. A man who returned to his best shape, maybe even better than when he hit jackpot with the Astros in 2000, looking for a new chance with a lot of hunger. It’s almost like American Idol, without the sadism and the lousy singing.

There’s so many out there we don’t know who will stay (or who could become trade bait). Even Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg are there for a chance. And this competitive Spring Training must bring the best in them. Or else. And this is what makes it fun.

Prospects who could shine?

Holdzkom. Patton. Pence. Should I go on?

It’s pretty hard to complete this Astros puzzle. We’ll sure be having a lot to talk about for the next few days.

Things that make us go hmmm…

– Fernando Nieve started working out and says felt good, right after the injury that put him away from the Caribes de Anzoategui in Venezuela.

– Hector Gimenez and Humberto Quintero don’t have it any easy: either they make it or they will have to be put through waivers before landing in Triple-A. To be fair with them, they don’t have anything else to prove in the Minors. Thing is, Gimenez is ailing from a tendinitis and if he doesn’t show any improvements, he’ll be out of the race for the spot as Brad Ausmus’ backup.

– Phil Garner to his young hurlers: "I don’t want to be impressed". For the time being.

Green means go

Captfldp10602161733astros_spring_basebalPitchers and catchers have reported and worked out for the first time at Kissimmee this Friday. All of them except for one, RHP Jose Rodriguez, are practicing. Rodriguez has not been able to arrive to the US yet because of visa issues.

We can see plenty of new faces in the crew: Miguel Ascencio and Jason Jennings, who came here from Colorado. Jennings and Woody Williams are the biggest attention-grabbers so far, natch. Jennings should not be intimidated by his new home, Minute Maid Park, not a pitcher’s park by any chance; even less after being able to tame the beast that Coors Field represents for any pitcher.

Captfldp11302162203astros_spring_basebal
There are plenty of youngsters who are worthy of your attention, as well. It’s true they are not likely to get into the big club right after Spring Training, but it’ll be great to see what are they up to and give us a glimpse into their potential. That is the case of guys such as Paul Estrada and Troy Patton.

Phil Garner is taking notes from Day One, and he wants to have an idea of how his rotation will be like; right behind Roy Oswalt and Company. They all have a shot, so they will try to make the best of it.

You can’t plan enough ahead. No one knows for sure what will be Roger Clemens’ decision in the end.

Recharging

I apologize for not updating this blog recently. I have taken some time to attend some personal affairs; and I’m also taking a bit of a rest just before the season starts.

There’s been some free time for me after the Aragua Tigers became Venezuelan League Champions, and I’m trying to do many things. One of them (sorry) was not watching the Caribbean World Series, held in Puerto Rico.

I didn’t get a chance to cover it this year, and honestly, I thank God for not happening. I wouldn’t stand the way Venezuela played during the tournament, with such a sad performance. Terrible pitching, awful base running and a lack of clutch verging on the ridiculous.

The mood for fans at any Caribbean World Series is amazing. That’s how it’s been every time I’ve been able to cover it. And there’s so much temptation for partying and touristic activities around, so many ballplayers fall for it. There’s the perception among many that the Caribbean World Series is nothing but a paid vacation for baseball players. And I do believe that the one team that takes it as it should be taken, as strictly business, will win it.

That’s how it was in Caracas back in 2002 for the Mexico team. They were fully committed, never skipped practice, always showing up on time.

So when you read statements as those made by Venezuela manage Buddy Bailey, you cannot help but lower your head in shame: "There are plenty of reasons (for the downfall), but the most important one is lack of commitment. When you make trips such as this and you bring your family or any other kind of company with you, they will look forward to joining you in doing all sorts of things, and that takes things out of control. It’s obvious that when you go down to a resort people think they’re on vacation, but they’re not. This is the Caribbean World Series".

"I’m disappointed. To be honest with you, I’m seeing some guys that are not playing up to their full potential, the one I know they’re capable of bringing to the game".

Enough said. Err, I better change subjects.

There will be a quite interesting and competitive Spring Training for the Astros. Many people for so few spots on the final roster.

There’s plenty of non-roster invitees, such as Richard Hidalgo, who’s coming after his rebirth on the Venezuelan Winter League. Competition between him and guys such as Jason Lane is going to be fierce.

The Astros have not declined in signing men like Lane and Morgan Ensberg, who carry huge question marks on them. Will they stay? How will they do?

The possibilities (and speculation) are limitless.

Hunter Pence will be one of the guys to watch. After a sensational rise on the minor league system, and a breaking performance on the Arizona Fall League, his progress might have stalled after his DWI incident, which led him to face disciplinary measures from the organization. He must prove all of that is behind him and that he is truly hungry. There’s still a bit of development left for him but this is a good moment to see him.

All of this in mind, and there’s so little time until the moment pitchers and catchers report. How many things to watch. One thing that will keep me busy is to see how much progress catchers Hector Gimenez and Humberto Quintero have made, so one of them can be Brad Ausmus’ backup guy. They won’t be alone in that competition, though. Kevin Davidson and Louis Santangelo will also be there.

What’s your favorite Spring Training storyline for this year?