Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker talks about second baseman Jeff Kent and a budget like the New York Yankees'.
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texasmonthly.com: When did it occur to you that you wanted to sign a second baseman?
Gerry Hunsicker: Well, really, that was one of the more amazing stories I’ve ever been associated with. We were no more looking to sign Jeff Kent or an impact player like Kent than the man on the moon. When we went to Nashville for the winter meetings in December, I had a message to call his agent. In the next 72 hours we went from Jeff Kent not even being on our radar screen to announcing him as our latest acquisition.
texasmonthly.com: It must have been exciting but a bit tortuous, given you had Craig Biggio at second.
GH: Well, yes. It’s exciting from the standpoint that this franchise doesn’t have many opportunities to acquire impact players, primarily for economic reasons. So whether it was adding Randy Johnson for a couple of months or signing Moises Alou, they just don’t come along very often. Fans get excited with celebrity-type talent.
So we knew it was going to be exciting for the fans, and certainly it was an opportunity to make our team significantly better. The flip side was that we had a pretty good second baseman that’s been here for a while, and that didn’t make it easy. I think the timing of it was more problematic than anything, because we didn’t have the time that we would have liked to have had to sit down with Craig and talk about a transition and get his input and so forth. It just happened so quickly.
And then to compound it, Craig was down in South Texas hunting and difficult to reach. So we all got ourselves backed into a corner and had to make some assumptions. Craig had always been a team player. He had talked about wanting to win a World Series, and win it here in Houston. He’d also begun to talk casually about possibly wanting to move to the outfield to possibly prolong his career, because it’s not as much wear and tear on the body as second base.
texasmonthly.com: Can you quantify the importance of the saying, “He’s been there before,” as far as Kent having played in the World Series?
GH: It’s hard to quantify it, only to say, having been fortunate enough to go to the playoffs four times in the past six years, experience is the best teacher. I don’t think there’s any substitute for experience. You can get lucky in a given year, but the pressure—the excitement, the different atmosphere of playing, going to the postseason—is something that takes some time to get comfortable with, so when you can add somebody that has been on that stage, not only been there but also played successfully, I think it really adds a dimension to your team that is necessary if you’re gonna be able to win.
texasmonthly.com: Do you ever lay awake dreaming of a budget like the New York Yankees’?
GH: I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say yes to that, but you can’t dwell on it because it does not serve any productive purpose. I try to take the fact that we might not have as much money to spend as some of our competitors as a challenge, and try to turn a negative into a positive and think about the satisfaction you receive when you can defeat the teams that are spending more money than you.
texasmonthly.com: Can having players like Bagwell and Biggio for as long as the Astros did ever happen again?
GH: Well, it’s tough. Longevity is difficult in this sport, number one because of injuries, especially with pitchers—most pitchers get hurt sooner or later. Because of injuries and also because of economics, it’s difficult to keep a unit together for a long period of time. The tougher part of that money equation is not always, “Gee, I can’t go out and sign this free agent or that free agent.” The tougher part is when you have been successful in developing quality players like Oswalt and Miller and Berkman; you know that it’s only a matter of time before you cannot keep them all. So it’s a never-ending cycle of not only producing quality players that can help you win at the major league level but also continuing to produce them, because you know you’re going to have to replace them sooner or later.
texasmonthly.com: Is there room for sentiment anymore?
GH: Sure, that’s part of the equation. Fans identify with players, fans create heroes, fans create stars. From a management standpoint, you try hard not to make too many changes so that the fans get into a situation of constantly having to create new relationships. It’s difficult for fans to watch their favorite players move on; so you certainly put that into the equation. But the practical part of the equation—in part because of economics, in part because of free agency, in part because sometimes you gotta make a trade to get a piece that you don’t have and you have to give up a pretty good player to get it—all those factors really make it difficult to keep a unit together for a long time.
texasmonthly.com: I know you want to win no matter what, but do you personally feel a sense of, “Well, I’m gonna give Biggio and Bagwell the best possible chance to win in these last years of their career”?
GH: Sure, you always do that. We’re all here to win, that’s why we’re all in this business, and when you’re fortunate enough to have two players as special as Craig and Jeff, you hope that there’s a sense of family, a sense of loyalty on both sides—that we’re all in this thing together. You know that they’ve given you everything that they have every day that they put the uniform on, and you certainly want to reciprocate.
texasmonthly.com: What put Jimy Williams over the top when you hired him?
GH: A couple of things. Number one, we knew that we had a number of young people that were emerging on the scenes at the major league level and we knew that was going to be an important trend, to continue to promote people, therefore the teaching aspect that Jimy brings was very important to us. I think a lot of kids get to the big leagues and they’re not totally prepared fundamentally to play this game, yet over the years the teaching element has fallen by the wayside. The feeling is, well, they’re in the major leagues now, they don’t need the repetition, they don’t need the teaching, that’s for the minor leagues. I just don’t believe that. Jimy has always been known as a great teacher, he still gets out on the field and instructs and demonstrates; he’s in the middle of everything. In addition to that, just the caliber of person that he was—high integrity, very honest, down to earth, what you see is what you get, no hidden agendas—I knew the players would respect him and believe in him.
texasmonthly.com: When I ask people about Miller and Oswalt, they all mention their heads before their ability.
GH: That’s true. All you have to do is take a look at the results of former number one draft picks in this industry to know that this is an industry built on failure. It’s not built on failure because the scouts can’t identify talent. They all have ability. So there’s gotta be something else that separates the winners from the rest of the pack, and that’s from the neck up. It’s that winning attitude that sometimes you can help develop but more times than not it’s instinctive, it’s part of the person’s personality. Wade and Roy both have that winning personality, that total confidence, that refuse-to-lose attitude when they take the mound, that they’re not going to get beat, that they’re not going to let anybody beat ’em.
texasmonthly.com: Is Richard Hidalgo your x-factor?
GH: He’s certainly one of them. A couple of years ago we thought Richard was a player headed for stardom, much like Lance Berkman is now. It’s been tough for him, he’s not been very productive. Some of that is physical—he’s had injuries to deal with, he’s put on some weight—but I think once you get as far into a rut as Richard has, it becomes mental. This is a big year for him, he needs to get back to where he was a couple of years ago. He’s young, he’s strong, he’s focused, and he’s very determined; so I’m optimistic.
texasmonthly.com: Does not breaking the bank salary-wise mean you be aggressive at the trade deadline on July 31 if you need to be?
GH: [Owner] Drayton [McLane] has always given us the flexibility to get that one player if it really makes sense. We don’t have, certainly, a lot of money to spend, but if we’re in the hunt—we’ve got a chance to win and there’s a special player out there that we feel can put us over the hump—he’s always been there for us. That’s something that’s not only a motivating factor for us in management, but also for your clubhouse and your fan base—knowing that if the opportunity presents itself to help you win in a given year, ownership is going to be there for you.
texasmonthly.com: Where does Brian Moehler fit in?
GH: Brian is pretty typical of a lot of the acquisitions we make here. It’s made without a lot of fanfare, he’s not a superstar, the signing pretty much goes unrecognized at the time, but hopefully, come October, he’ll have played a major factor in helping us win. He’s a great role model for young pitchers, he knows what it takes to compete at this level, and this is the first time in his career that he’s been on a team that has a chance to win. On perennially losing teams he always led the pitching staff. If he’s over his injuries and he can stay healthy this year, I think he’s going to be a very productive player for us.
texasmonthly.com: And how about the left side of the infield, nobody talks about those guys.
GH: Julio Lugo. Last year he was one of the best defensive shortstops in the league and certainly held his own offensively. At his age, there’s no reason he can’t continue to get better. He’s established himself as a very reliable shortstop. Third base is more uncertain. Geoff Blum has always been more of a role player; this year he’ll come in as the opening day third baseman and get a lot of playing time. We’ll have to wait and see how he takes advantage of that opportunity, but we believe he’s got the ability to be a solid everyday player. He might not have the power that you usually look for at that position, but I don’t believe we’re gonna be starved for power in this lineup. We don’t need him to hit 25 or 30 home runs.
texasmonthly.com: Was there a period of adjustment to the park?
GH: I don’t think there’s any question about that. I can still remember getting off the bus coming back from spring training when we all walked out on the field for the first time and I think half the pitching staff was ready for the psychiatric unit. It really got into their heads and unfortunately, 2000 reflected that. Looking at the past couple of years, there’s been a decrease in some of the offensive numbers at Minute Maid, and in reality it didn’t have as much to do with the ballpark as it did with the guy on the mound. It took us a while to even play above .500 baseball, but I think, finally, this field is like home, and I believe it’s an advantage now.
texasmonthly.com: Some people don’t believe in chemistry, that if you win, chemistry doesn’t matter. But this team seems to be constructed of very compatible personalities.
GH: I’m not one of those that dismisses chemistry as unimportant. On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important, especially when you don’t have the ability to go out and get whatever player you want. If you’re far superior talent-wise to the opposition, I would maintain that chemistry becomes less important because you clearly need talent to win. But most of us aren’t in that situation, we’ve got to depend on getting the most out of the people that we have. If you can create an atmosphere where we are in this together, where we know we have to pull on the oar the same way, I believe it gives you an advantage. We try to bring in the right kind of people, people who are going to fit in our clubhouse. You can’t bat one thousand in that area, but by and large I think most people would suggest we have one of the best clubhouses in baseball.