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AROUND THE HORN / MIKE DiGIOVANNA

Needing a Spark, Astros Decide to Plug In Beltran

June 27, 2004|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

Ever since they traded three top prospects -- pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama and shortstop Carlos Guillen -- to Seattle for ace Randy Johnson on July 31, 1998, the Houston Astros have been reluctant to part with top minor leaguers in potential rent-a-player deals.

Houston failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs in 1998, Johnson bolted for Arizona after the season, and what did the Astros have to show for the deal besides a severe case of buyer's remorse and a gaping hole in their organization?

But with Houston sagging in the National League Central, its lineup looking old and slow and a sense of urgency enveloping the franchise -- Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were added last winter, and Jeff Bagwell (36) and Craig Biggio (38) are nearing the end of their careers -- General Manager Gerry Hunsicker pulled the trigger on a three-way deal for center fielder Carlos Beltran on Thursday.

The price wasn't as steep as that paid for Johnson -- it cost the Astros closer Octavio Dotel and cash (to Oakland) and top catching prospect John Buck (to Kansas City) -- and much like Johnson, Beltran, the former Royal star, may walk after the season to pursue a six-year, $75-million deal in free agency.

But to the Astros, seven games behind first-place St. Louis, it was worth the risk.

In Beltran, the Astros have a multitalented, 27-year-old in his prime, a player who is headed for his fourth consecutive season of at least 24 home runs, 100 runs batted in and 31 stolen bases.

He will bat third, infusing the lineup with energy and confidence, and his defense will stabilize an outfield that was shaky with converted second baseman Biggio in center. Biggio moved to left, a far less strenuous position in Minute Maid Park, and left fielder Lance Berkman went to right.

"He's one of the most exciting and complete players in the game," Hunsicker said of Beltran. "There's nothing he can't do. He's the type of player the Astros haven't had for a long time."

And he's the type of player the Astros might not have for a long time.

But if Houston is playing deep into this October, it will be long enough.

*

What is it about San Diego and bad foliage? First, it was Ryan Leaf, a highly paid No. 2 pick whose troubled Charger career ended with his being labeled one of the biggest busts in NFL history, and now it's Matt Bush, the No. 1 pick in baseball's June 7 draft, a shortstop who signed with the Padres for $3.15 million and is already being compared to Leaf.

Bush, 18, was arrested last Sunday in Peoria, Ariz., on suspicion of felony aggravated assault for allegedly biting a nightclub bouncer on the forearm and three misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and being a minor consuming alcohol.

Bush, whose older brother, 23-year-old Jeremy, was also arrested during the incident, which took place at a night spot just across the parking lot from the Padres' spring training complex, was suspended indefinitely by the Padres.

If Bush suffered an injury in the altercation, his contract could be voided. The Padres have paid Bush $150,000 of his bonus. The rest is due in 2005.

"I wouldn't take anything out of the picture right now," Padre President Dick Freeman said. "I don't want to sugarcoat how I feel. I am so very disappointed. But I am trying to reserve judgment. We need to run a full investigation. There are a lot of unanswered questions."

Matt's father, Danny Bush, told the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Matt is scared that the Padres are trying to get out of his contract.

"My hope is that the Padres are trying to scare him and teach him a lesson. That would be good, a shot across his bow."

Said Padre GM Kevin Towers: "Shall we stand by him? Get him help? Do we have grounds to void his contract? We are finding out more and more about him that gives us reason to be concerned."

*

In Anaheim last week, first baseman Darin Erstad suffered a dislocation of a knuckle on the middle finger of his right hand.

In St. Louis, reliever Steve Kline suffered a dislocation between his brain and the middle finger of his right hand, and the result was that finger being thrust in the air -- for all of TV land to see -- toward his manager, Tony La Russa.

The bizarre incident stemmed from Kline's frustration over warming up in the sixth inning but not being summoned to pitch in a 10-9 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday night.

A Chicago television station caught the gesture, which La Russa was unaware of until reporters informed him after the game.

"He did that?" La Russa responded. "Give me two minutes, and I'll be standing on top of his chest."

La Russa stormed into the clubhouse, confronted Kline in the shower and, uh, verbally undressed him.

"He told me he thought he was coming into the game," La Russa said. "I told him it was bull, and he apologized. He was upset he wasn't in the game. I told him it doesn't matter; it's bull."

Said Kline: "No big deal. I was fired up."

Oh, OK.

*

Playing for the Angels can be hazardous to your health -- this season hasn't reached the All-Star break, and already nine front-line players have been on the disabled list, with third baseman Troy Glaus probably out for the season.

But who knew even being associated with the Angels could have the same effect?

The Angels' rookie-league team in Provo, Utah, played its season opener Wednesday, and as part of the pregame festivities, Kevin Williams, a local businessman whose bank sponsors the Angels, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

But Williams planted his foot wrong as he threw the ball, broke his leg, and the game was delayed about 30 minutes as an ambulance was called to transport Williams to the hospital.

"Maybe," said Joe Maddon, Angel bench coach, "you're just prone by association."

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