Cooper excited about Astros lineup
Skipper set on giving green light in '08; addresses closer need
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Hinting that the Astros may be active on the trade front before the end of the Winter Meetings, manager Cecil Cooper spoke optimistically about a Houston club he believes has taken dramatic steps in the right direction.
Cooper, an "old school" baseball man who draws from his own very successful 17-year Major League career that spanned from 1971-87, is excited about the speed and defense added to the top of his lineup this offseason. He envisions Michael Bourn and Kazuo Matsui as a formidable 1-2 punch that will set the table for another speedster, Hunter Pence, with Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee presumably adding power in the Nos. 4 and 5 holes.
"Over the last three years, we've scuffled at times to score runs," Cooper said during a half-hour question and answer session with reporters on Tuesday at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. "We haven't really had the speed except the one year [Willy] Taveras got a chance to play. We kind of lost that real speed on top of our lineup."
With Taveras, known for his world-class speed, out of the mix following last year's trade with the Colorado Rockies, the Astros' running game suffered. Cooper would like to revive that element, one that he considers to be one of the most important when comprising a contending big league club.
"I think we were at the bottom of the league as far a stolen bases are concerned," Cooper said. "We're going to change that and the only way to do that is to add some speed. I think we've done that with the two guys we've had at the top, and then the guy possibly that's going to be the third guy [Pence] has the ability to steal 20 bases. Bourn has the ability to steal 50 bases. They will get the green light, they will run. We'll be aggressive in those situations and they'll have the freedom to do that."
Even before the Astros signed Bourn, the skipper had already decided he would rather Pence hit third rather than lead off. Cooper met with both Berkman and Lee about moving a spot or two down in the order, and both, according to Cooper, were receptive.
Cooper recently called Pence and told him he was taking away Pence's "igniter" label and giving it to Bourn. The skipper then added with a laugh "I'll have to find a new name for [Pence]."
For Cooper, who hit third for the majority of his career, Pence is a multi-dimensional talent who can hit for average and power and can also steal bases. While Pence's speed makes him a good candidate to lead off, his bat appears to be better suited for the middle of the order.
"I'm under the belief that Hunter can do a lot on a baseball field, probably more than most," Cooper said. "He's a very gifted player, an exciting player. For us, I think the best fit is for him to be in that three-hole. We're going to visit that during Spring Training. A lot depends on what happens here in the next couple days [at the Winter Meetings] and what happens this winter.
"We're always looking to improve our club. There might be some other things we can do that can make us better. I reserve the right to say he will be penciled in there [in the three-hole]. But for the time being, we'll say he's the guy."
Cooper spoke of "getting better" in terms of the closing situation, but he was quick to add he would be satisfied with Chad Qualls in that role. It's no secret the Astros have been actively shopping for a closer this week, but in the event nothing pans out, Cooper likes Qualls. He also mentioned Dennis Sarfate and newly acquired Doug Brocail as possible candidates for ninth inning duty.
"There's a lot of things we can do," Cooper said. "We have to go to Spring Training and sift through it. It starts with Qualls."
While the Astros have overhauled their lineup and made significant additions to the bullpen, the starting rotation hasn't changed. Cooper spoke optimistically about three pitchers he felt had the biggest upside at the end of the season, but emphasized the list of worthy rotation candidates is much longer.
"The best three at the end of the year were [Roy] Oswalt, Wandy [Rodriguez], [Brandon] Backe," Cooper said. "To me, that's where we start from. Whether we include Woody Williams and Troy Patton, also Juan Gutierrez, Felipe Paulino, some of those names will be thrown into that mix. We do feel like we have some depth there, some good arms.
"[Chris] Sampson is another name we talk about. We've actually discussed the possibility to move him to the bullpen. That's another option. He was probably the second-best pitcher the first half of the year."
Asked if the club would make any moves before the conclusion of the Winter Meetings on Thursday, Cooper sounded hopeful.
"I'm sure we will be looking to do that," he said. "Whether we do it or not is a different story. I know some things are brewing, but you have to have other teams willing to pull the trigger on things."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.