10/16/2003 8:29 PM ET
Hunsicker's offseason agenda
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
Gerry Hunsicker has a number of issues to address during the offseason. (Alyson Footer/MLB.com)
HOUSTON -- Asked what his No. 1 priority is now that the hot stove season has begun, Gerry Hunsicker smiled and said "this was my No. 1 priority."
Hunsicker, obviously, was referring to his new one-year contract extension that will carry him through the 2005 season. Now that those negotiations are over, the Astros GM indeed has a number of issues to address before 2004 Spring Training commences:
A contract extension for Jimy Williams: Interviewing with any New York franchise -- no matter how informally -- will get your name plastered in the papers. In turn, Hunsicker's meeting with the Mets grabbed the headlines for the better part of a week, and in the end, he landed an extension with the Astros.
But what about Williams? He is entering the final season of a three-year deal but it doesn't appear that he has talked extension with the Astros' brass. That might be next on the agenda.
"I expect to sit down with Jimy in the near future and discuss the possibility of a contract extension," Hunsicker said. He also rattled off a short list of managers who enjoyed great success in the last year of their contracts without receiving an extension, including former Giants manager Dusty Baker and Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
Addressing payroll issues: Six players will take up $51.5 million of the Astros' $70 million payroll in 2004. Only one -- closer Billy Wagner -- is a pitcher. The other five: Jeff Bagwell ($13 million), Richard Hidalgo ($12 million), Craig Biggio ($4 million), Lance Berkman ($6.5 million) and Jeff Kent ($4 million).
The Astros likely saw this coming a few years ago, but they are now in a tight spot where a small number of players are making the bulk of the money. Hunsicker's challenge will be to surround the few high-priced starters with an inexpensive but competitive supporting staff.
"Money's not the answer," Hunsicker said. "It's how you spend it. And unfortunately, the way our payroll is structured right now, we don't have a lot of flexibility.
"If there's one thing we've been guilty of, it's trying to hold on to too many of our star players in an effort to give our fans the excitement of seeing these people who obviously have been great performers. The dilemma is that for most of us, we can't really afford to do that and maintain the flexibility we need to put the best possible product on the field and maximize the dollars we have to spend."
That may mean ridding themselves of a contract -- or two. Wagner, who will be paid $9 million in the final year of his three-year deal, is a candidate. Hidalgo is too. The Astros feel setup men Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel are both viable options to move into the closer's role. Jason Lane could take over in right field, although the Astros may be more hesitant to give up Hidalgo, the only Astro who hit over .300 last year and led the Majors with a club record 22 outfield assists.
Make a decision on Wagner: Wagner's contract isn't the only reason he could end up on the trading block. His end-of-the-season statements blasting the frugality of Astros ownership came from a man who sounded like he wanted out.
On whether Wagner's comments caused irreparable damage, Hunsicker replied: "I don't know that I can answer that. You have to hope it was stemming from the frustration we all felt after missing the playoffs. I hope I have a chance to sit down and talk to him about it. We're going to have to look through it. It was certainly an unfortunate situation."