Yesterday, my son and I were driving down a street we frequent 2-3 times a week. A long line at a traffic light meant we stopped further back than usual and, as I was looking out to the left, I asked Destin: “Has that nursery always been there?”
Indeed, the building wasn’t new, the parking lot had obviously been there quite some time and the landscaping wasn’t recent. Hmmm. Funny how things are often right before you and go unnoticed.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s conversation. Because the stars of sports teams make the most money, handle the ball more than most and make the most “noise” before or after a game, we often discuss them at the water cooler. They get the headlines — good and bad — and they attract the most trade or free agent attention.
However, it’s often the guy who goes unnoticed that makes the biggest difference over the course of a season. He’s the one who subs for the player who takes a 2-3 week stint on the disabled list or steps into multiple positions over the course of a season. He’s the coach who stays late watching video and catches a game-changing gap in a swing or hitch in the giddy-up of a pitcher’s mechanic. Or a bullpen catcher. Or a guy at AAA taking extra batting practice or throwing a few extra pitches in a bullpen.
So, here are a few people who could be difference makers for the Astros this season. People you may not notice right away. People you may ask “who is that?” one day when the game slows down a bit.
Brent Strom. Pitching Coach.
- He’s not a player, but there’s no better place to start. He’s the only coach on Bo Porter‘s staff who had more than a one-year contract. He’s about the only one that Jeff Luhnow insisted on A.J. Hinch keeping. By every account, he’s been a difference-maker and brought stability to the Astros’ pitching program. Now is the time you’ll likely start seeing the manifestation of the fruit. Believe it or not, Strom has been the pitching coach for only one season, though it seems like three or four.
Marwin Gonzalez, Super Sub.
- He hasn’t gone unnoticed, but he could be one of the most important cogs in Hinch’s engine this season. There is nothing like a Bill Spiers Super Sub. He can play most any position, give you a stretch of games in case of injury or under-performance, come in late in games and produce. And, do it all extremely well. If Jed Lowrie or Luis Valbuena — or even Jose Altuve — go down, MarGo slides in seamlessly. Maybe not at the same production (in the case of Altuve), but he can handle it. Important player.
Brett Oberholtzer. #4 starter.
- Yes, you’ve noticed him some, but he carries more significance than you may think. Frankly, as he goes, so may go the Astros’ season. He entered spring training without the promise of a job behind the much ballyhooed Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. A .500 season from Obie could be huge for Houston. a 5-13 season with a 5+ ERA could spell the difference in a run at the playoffs and a ho-hum .500 season for the team.
- Like Oberholtzer, Hernandez could be a stabilizing difference-maker until Mark Appel arrives, either in the rotation or as trade bait (note all the pitching injuries around the league). Likewise Dan Straily could fill the gap if either Hernandez or Obie falter.
It’s the draft stupid.
- Get this: Houston. Can’t. Miss. In. The. Draft. With an unprecedented two of the first five picks, the Astros have to nail at least one, if not both, picks. No Brady Aiken gambles. If The Plan moves forward, it should be the last time Houston drafts in the Top 10 for a few years, so this draft is even more significant.
- The pipeline is apparently full. Watch closely. It’s foolish to believe that all of these will develop into quality major leaguers, much less stars. However, Houston has to hit on some of these players. And, not trade them away. And, it’s not the top five who are critical. Take a look down the line at the Danry Vasquez‘ and the Kyle Smiths and the like. Some of those guys — and others who aren’t even in the Top 20 — must contribute. Watch closely.
So, who are the players or other individuals who will fly under the radar much of this season, but will make a huge difference over the 162-game schedule?