Tejada drama looms over Astros camp

February 12, 2008 11:34:42 AM PST
Spring training for the Houston Astros has come with its share of drama in recent years. It should be no different next week in Kissimmee, Fla. Miguel Tejada was the biggest acquisition in an offseason full of changes, but the day after Tejada signed he was mentioned in the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball.

Since then, his older brother died in a motorcycle accident and the FBI opened a preliminary investigation trying to determine if Tejada made false statements to U.S. House committee staff in 2005 when he was interviewed about Rafael Palmeiro and steroids.

The Astros still expect Tejada to show up on time for the team's first full-squad workout Feb. 19. The 2002 AL MVP is certain to be the center of attention -- like Roger Clemens was last season as he threw batting practice and pondered retirement, and like Jeff Bagwell was in 2006 when he tried to play through an injured shoulder and settle an insurance dispute with the team.

"We've had the Rocket here, we had Carlos Lee come here last year with a $100 million contract and that attracted a lot of attention," said Houston manager Cecil Cooper. "There's always been a lot of media around. As a staff, we just have to focus on what guys do on the field and getting the guys ready."

Cooper has plenty of other things to think about before the season starts March 31, including the pitching rotation, the batting order and the bullpen.

Cooper says his top priority is finding out who he has behind No. 1 starter Roy Oswalt.

He needs left-hander Wandy Rodriguez to show he can blossom into a consistent starter after going 28-33 in his first three seasons. He's hoping Brandon Backe returns to his 2005 form after Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. He's banking on 41-year-old Woody Williams turning around after he went 8-15 in 2007. And he needs to find a starter from a group that include Chris Sampson, Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve.

"We've got some capable guys right there," Cooper said. "I think we saw the worst of Woody last year. He'll be better. I'm anxious to see Brandon Backe for a whole year. The growth process is continuing to help Wandy. I think we've got some quality there."

Cooper said he won't settle on the batting order until just before the regular season, and there's no shortage of possibilities.

The Astros acquired speedster Michael Bourn to play center field and Kaz Matsui to replace Craig Biggio at second base. Tejada, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence already form a hard-hitting quartet in the middle of the lineup.

Cooper is eager to evaluate his team's offensive potential. The Astros scored 723 runs in 2007, fourth-lowest in the NL.

"I'll have discussions with guys about where they're comfortable in the lineup," Cooper said. "I know some guys are projected to bat here or there (in the order), but I want to see how everybody fits. We still have to go to camp and see what everybody can do."

The bullpen has been revamped from back to front.

Houston has a new closer (Jose Valverde), two set-up men (Oscar Villareal and Doug Brocail) and other new faces (Geoff Geary, Ryan Houston and Chad Paronto) who will compete for spots. Relief pitching was a weakness last season, but Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler were among those traded away.

"We've got a great basis to build from," Cooper said. "We'll go a little on past history and then we'll determine who's the best fit where, based on what we see (at spring training)."

Pitchers and catchers report Thursday and as the rest of the players filter in, Cooper might consider handing out name tags. More than half the players on the current 40-man roster weren't on the team at the end of last season.

General manager Ed Wade made all the moves after he was hired Sept. 20, and he's eager to see how they all mesh.

"I've seen it happen in other organizations where it's taken an extended period of time for a team to jell," Wade said. "I'm optimistic in our environment, due to the fact we have the core nucleus in place at the end of September when I got here, when you start talking about (Brad) Ausmus, Oswalt, Lee, Berkman and a number of other guys who've been around the block and understand our environment here.

"But until you get everybody in the same room and get everybody on the same page, it's still just a mystery."

The Astros went 73-89 in 2007, their second losing season since 1991, and Cooper said a wholesale renovation of the roster was necessary.

"Change is good," Cooper said. "We were just not a very good team last year. Last September, when some of the kids were coming up and contributing, you could already see changes that were definitely positive."

- Send us your sports story tips
- Click here for more sports stories