Street & Smith’s:
The first half of the 1966 season was fun for the Astros and their new manager, Grady Hatton. At the end of June, they were riding along in fifth place, surprise team in the race. Then, things started going the other way. First Joe Morgan, then Jimmy Wynn, suffered crippling injuries. In the second half the Astros lost 53, winning only 24 and falling to eighth, 36 games behind. Injuries to Morgan, the star second baseman, and to Wynn, the spark plug centerfielder, indeed were costly. Morgan lost 40 games because of a broken kneecap. Wynn, who crashed into the wall in Philadelphia on August 1, suffered a fracture of the wrist which left him in a cast months later. He played in only 105 games, but his 20 home runs were tops on the club and his 66 RBI in third. These were two losses the Astros could least afford. Despite these blows, the Astros surpassed their previous victory total by three games and the eighth place finish was the highest since they came into existence in 1962. There was some progress despite the frustrations.
After the usual changes in the winter time for the new season, the Astros had garnered possession of Eddie Mathews, greatest slugger in the Braves’ history; Jim Landis, an American League veteran who has lately been on the move, and Bo Belinsky, the eccentric southpaw whose baseball activity in 1966 was limited to 16 innings with the Phillies (0-1) and 54 with San Diego (2-4). That’s not exactly winding up with swag. Barring later trades, the Astros were set in seven of the eight daily positions. Mathews, 36, is scheduled for first base, replacing last year’s incumbent, Chuck Harrison. The rest of the infield has Morgan at second, Bob Aspromonte at third, and Rookie of the Year Sonny Jackson at shortstop. Jackson batted .300, leading the league with 166 singles and 24 sacrifice bunts. He was second to Lou Brock in stolen bases, his 53 breaking a 56-year-old league record for a rookie.
It was Wynn in center and Rusty Staub, voted the Astros’ most valuable player last year, in right field. The 33-year-old Landis, who batted .289 in 166 at-bats for the Indians, had competition in left field from Ron Davis and Aaron Pointer, a rookie who batted .277 for Oklahoma City. Dave Nicholson, the struggling slugger who started out strong for the Astros a year ago, was snatched by the Braves, along with Pitcher Bob Bruce, in the deal for Mathews. Davis, who came up late in 1966, batted .302 in the Texas League. In their early days in the National League, the Astros – originally the Colt .45s – played respectably because of good pitching and a strong defense. But these were woeful departments last season. The Astros were ninth in fielding and their 174 errors were only surpassed by the Cubs in all of the major league teams.
The Astros do not have an established pitching star, but are quite proud of the performances submitted by Larry Dierker, Mike Cuellar, and Dave Giusti. The 20-year-old Dierker is rated a potential 20-game winner. Last season, he was 8-13 but had a neat 3.18 ERA in 192.1 innings. Cuellar, a slight 30-year-old lefty from Cuba, helped in the early season excitement, tapering off to a 14-13 record, but had an impressive 2.85 ERA. Guisti just managed to beat the .500 mark also with a 10-9 mark. After these three, there is a sharp drop off in the starting group. A reformed Bo Belinsky could parlay his sinking fast ball into wins if he can locate the plate. Help, if it is to come, must come from youngsters such as Chris Zachary, a 23-year-old lefty, who was 10-7, 4.14 ERA at Oklahoma City, and fast-baller Don Wilson, a 22-year-old who posted a 18-6 mark and a 2.21 ERA at Amarillo in the Texas League. Veterans Dick Farrell, who had a brief shining moment with a July no-hitter before arm troubles sent him to the bull pen, and Jim Owens will shore up the long relief. Little Claude Raymond is the bullpen star. He registered 19 saves, second in the league, along with a 2.71 ERA. Hatton likes Carroll Sembera, a youngster who has received a rough initiation to the major leagues thus far, for short relief. One of the prize Houston bonus pitchers, Danny Coombs, still is struggling to live up to all that money expended. Lefty Dan Schneider, 15-4, 2.91 at Richmond last season, was acquired from the Braves in hopes he can fill a long-standing left-handed void.
The catching department is good. Big John Bateman, the first stringer, lashed nine homers and drove in 49 runs. His replacement, Bill Heath, who switches, batted .287 in 122 at-bats. Hatton is high on Dave Adlesh, a 24-year-old rookie. The youthfulness of his club, says Manager Grady Hatton, means there is hope for improvement. It also could mean that any of seven players might be called into service at any moment.
The attack revolves around the on-base ability of Joe Morgan, the long-ball hitting of Jim Wynn and the base stealing of Sonny Jackson. With Morgan and Wynn fully recovered from serious injuries suffered last season, the offense has been rejuvenated. Although out for more than a month last year, Morgan (.267) was third in the league in walks with 81. Wynn, a muscular 5’9″ and 170 pounds, slugged 20 homers and drove in 66 runs in just 105 games. Because the Astrodome is one of the hardest parks in which to hit home runs, speed is vital to producing runs and speed is precisely what Jackson, who stole 53 bases and hit .300 as a rookie, provides. Occasional bursts of power will come from Rusty Staub, John Bateman, Chuck Harrison, rookie Aaron Pointer and former Brave Eddie Mathews.
Now that the leak in the Astrodome ceiling has been fixed and the Astroturf has been zippered up, the next project is to patch up the defense. Houston, second to last in fielding and double plays, gave up 97 unearned runs last year. Only one regular catcher in either league made more errors than Bateman, while Morgan led all second basemen in errors. And only Don Kessinger made more errors than shortstop Jackson. But Wynn and Jim Landis are go-getters in the outfield, and Bob Aspromonte is a deft third baseman. Mike Cuellar (14-13), Larry Dierker (8-13) and reliever Claude Raymond (five wins, 19 saves) are standouts on a so-so pitching staff. Cuellar, mixing his fast ball with his baffling screwball, had the ninth best ERA (2.85) in the league. Dierker has a live arm and needs only consistency to be a big winner. Dave Giusti (10-9) must find a way to overcome his annual midseason collapse. A reformed Bo Belinsky could parlay his sinking fast ball into wins if he can locate the plate. Help, if it is to come, must come from youngsters such as Chris Zachary, Dan Schneider, Carroll Sembera and fast-baller Don Wilson.
The youthfulness of his club, says Manager Grady Hatton, means there is hope for improvement. It also could mean that any of seven players might be called into service at any moment.