Last time we checked on the 2001A Astros in Out of the Park Baseball, they were preparing to head into the season with a newly revamped lineup and rotation. At least, I wasn’t considering making any more moves, and it was only January. So, I kept an eye on the trading block and waiver wire while slowly moving towards opening day.
2001A had some divergences from our time stream, beyond me combining the 2001 Astros, 2001 Pirates, and 2004 Cardinals. For example, Brian Roberts retired in February to become a professional golfer, the Red Sox traded away future captain Jason Varitek for a minor leaguer and bench depth, and John Rocker injured himself in a freak treadmill accident. A few small deal went on across the league. I myself turned down an offer or two to swap bench players while making a small minor league signing or two. R.A. Dickey and Juan Rivera were among my minor league moves; although both wouldn’t establish themselves until well past 2001, I figured it couldn’t hurt to add them.
I began working on a long-term extension for Brian Giles and Jason Kendall, who were both free agents after the season in the meantime. I hesitated on meeting Jeff Bagwell’s demands, though. He wanted a five year, $100 million deal. In the real world, he was out of the game by 2006. It seemed weird risking him leaving, but it was too much of a risk. Both accepted during Spring Training, with Giles signing for $80 million over five years and Kendall signing for $22 million over four years.
Spring Training brought some injuries to my bench, but nothing major thankfully. Finally, it was time for Opening Day. It was around now that I realized I was slightly over-budget (by about $100,000). I looked at my top contracts list and found the list topped by Bagwell, Giles (both keepers), and Shane Reynolds. Reynolds wasn’t bad, but he was maybe a third starter; he was coming off seasons with ERA+s of 117, 117, and 95. I could definitely find a cheaper third/fourth starter, which would help my roster flexibility. I wound up acquiring Omar Daal from Philadelphia, freeing up about $5 million for myself.
With that final move, I received a letter from the owner, saying he expected the team to be around .500. Hopefully, I would do much better.
We won opening day hosting Milwaukee. Off-season acquisition Jose Cruz, Jr. hit the team’s first home run of the season, fellow new arrivals Giles and Kendall each had two hits, and rookie Roy Oswalt struck out 11 over 8 innings en route to a 5-2 win. We trounced the Brewers the following day, 13-6, but lost game three.
Unfortunately, Lance Berkman received a four-week injury, which meant we’d be a little thin for a few days. Barry Bonds went down on the same day, though, which meant that at least we weren’t alone in out health struggles. The Brewers immediately offered Devon White, but his contract, plus the temporary nature of our problem, dissuaded me. Our bats kept up in the immediate aftermath, with some strong performances against Pittsburgh. The top of the order was doing their job, and the rotation was turning in some solid performances, led by Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt. Two weeks in, we stood in first in the NL Central at 9-3, with Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell among the league leaders in hitting (Bagwell was even first in homers at 6, thanks to a lack of Bonds). My decisions were looking good so far.
April closed with Houston at 16-9, a .640 winning percentage, good for second best record in the NL behind the Central-leading Cubs (17-7). New acquisition Cruz won player of the month honors, leading an offense that closed out the month with a sweep of Florida that saw Houston outscore the Marlins 42-15. Lance Berkman would be coming off the DL any day, too, providing the team with even more punch.
I can’t leave well enough alone, so I was looking for more ways to upgrade the team. There was some shakiness in the starting rotation and the left side of the infield was not hitting very well. I shopped Julio Lugo, who had been disappointing at short. Shopping would turn up any player who a team would offer for the player, saving me the trouble of trying every single possible outcome. Surprisingly, Different players offered by the Marlins included Ryan Dempster and Josh Beckett. Dempster was a starter in 2001, while Beckett was still in the minors. But Beckett definitely has the upside over Dempster. I went to the trade screen building off of the idea of Lugo for Beckett.
I wanted some help for the left side of the infield-just trading for a pitcher who may need to serve most of the year in the minors didn’t seem incentive enough to trade. I added Alex Gonzalez, and they countered by requesting Juan Rivera. By why settle for Gonzalez? I scratched him and tried Mike Lowell instead. Lowell was off to a slow start, but I would bet on a rebound from him. The Marlins requested a minor league second baseman named Kelsey Duncan. The 20-year old was lighting up single A, but getting Lowell and Beckett was just too good.
Astros get: Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett
Marlins get: Juan Rivera, Kelsey Duncan, Julio Lugo
That also left me with $3.5 million in budget room too. Another trade offer popped up right after that, featuring a player close to my heart. The Orioles offered me Melvin Mora, still listed as a shortstop, in exchange for two players. one was a 23-year old in AA named Ronald Browne. He was supposed to have potential, but my outfield was looking full for the foreseeable future. Also included was Carlos Tellez, a 26-year old dominating in AA. His potential was listed as lower, which made a lot of sense. In all, I was dealing from a position of depth, so I took it.
Astros get: Melvin Mora
Orioles get: Carlos Tellez, Ronald Browne
Again, I didn’t take a big hit on budget, thanks to Mora being close to league-minimum. This was leading to a clutter of players, especially between Bill Spiers and Chris Truby. Both were third basemen who had lost their jobs for sure. On top of that, Spiers was one of the more expensive players on the roster, and as a veteran, he refused demotion. I wound up trading him to Texas for Travis Lee, freeing up over $1 million in payroll space. I really didn’t need Lee, but I figured he was a more attractive option than Spiers. I continued shopping, trying to work through my extra options. With extra middle infielders, I shopped a variety of them to see who got the best return. The result was Craig Counsell going to Oakland for Javy Lopez (who they acquired earlier in 2001A). Now, I had Lopez, Lee, and a handful of other bench players to build a trade around.
Pitching seemed like the biggest need. Jeff Suppan, another trade of mine, had been disappointing with a 6.11 ERA. However, the Mets offered me Kevin Appier for the pair of Lopez and Lee. That was the best offer I had received so far, even with a 4.08 ERA, and it beat Suppan so far. Besides, there’s no such thing as too much pitching. I even got them to throw in a pitching prospect, low-ceiling Johannes Mathisen. Despite his low ceiling, he was a 21-year old in AAA.
Astros get: Kevin Appier, Johannes Mathisen
Mets get: Javy Lopez, Travis Lee
The 2001A Astros now look very little like their real-2001 counterparts. May was not as kind to this team as April had been. They went under .500 for the month (13-14), dropping them to 29-23 overall. They’re still second in the NL Central, but now stand four games behind the Cubs. They are tied with the Mets for the Wild Card, though.
Pitching continued to struggle into June. The Diamondbacks were unsatisfied with Miguel Batista, and I figured that I could always use another arm, so I sent them 27-year old AAA starter Brian Powell. I kept Batista in the pen, dropping Roger Roberts (10.95 ERA) down to the minors for the spot. I also moved Omar Daal to the bullpen and promoted Josh Beckett to his spot. Something had to be done to improve the rotation, so I might as well try everything. We had to make up our now-7 game deficit somehow. Josh Beckett won his debut with 8 Ks and 2 runs in 8 innings, which seemed like a good omen.
Roy Oswalt broke his elbow within a week, which was really unfortunate; he was my only reliable starter to date, and he was now out for four months. Luckily, I now had depth. Miguel Batista would be stepping into the rotation for him, and Bronson Arroyo got the call-up. Worst case scenario, I could give Arroyo (who had been solid in AAA) a go as a starter.
With June ending, things were looking pretty bad. We went 12-16 for the month, leaving us now at 41-38. The Cubs were running away with the division, currently standing at a 10.5 game lead. We were only 1.5 games behind Pittsburgh for the Wild Card, though. There was still hope.
The week leading into the All-Star break was rough, though. (Also, in around-the-league oddities, the Padres traded Tony Gwynn to Detroit for Tony Clark) We did win our last game before the break, though, leaving us 44-43. On a brighter note, we were well-represented in the Mid-Summer Classic, with Billy Wagner, Jeff Bagwell, Jose Cruz, Brian Giles, and Lance Berkman all representing us. But with a 10-game lead to make up in the Central and a 4-game one in the Wild Card, it would be rough going.