Cooper Likes What He Sees As Head Man

By Steve Campbell
Updated: January 18, 2008

HOUSTON — Cecil Cooper has worked all his life for this chance. Better late than never, Cooper is at the front of the Astros’ caravan bound for the 2008 season. Pitchers and catchers report to Kissimmee, Fla., for spring training in 26 days.

Cooper had a distinguished 17-year playing career in the major leagues, making five All-Star games. He held down almost every imaginable baseball job before getting the chance to manage a big league team.

Astros a contender

His first chance to mold a team from the start of the season to finish comes at age 58. Rare is the first-time manager who inherits a perfect situation, so the team in question is coming off a 73-89 season.

The new general manager, Ed Wade, has done his best to improve the team by dispersing elsewhere as many of last year’s Astros as possible.

Cooper has a bright, shiny new lineup he can’t wait to ride into the season. He has a fully restocked bullpen he plans to use often, though preferably not early, in games. He also has an All-Star shortstop who is under siege by Congress and the FBI for testimony given in 2005 involving possible steroid use by Rafael Palmeiro.

The wheels of justice will turn on their own timetable, not the Astros’. The first game that counts is March 31. At least until then, allow Cooper to look at his team through brick-red-colored glasses.

“I’m just overwhelmed by what we have the chance to accomplish this year,” Cooper said. “We have a legitimate contending team.”

A new lineup

Wade shipped out Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, Luke Scott, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Troy Patton and Matt Albers. When Wade got finished wheeling and dealing, the Astros had taken shape with a new center fielder (Michael Bourn), second baseman (Kaz Matsui) and shortstop (Miguel Tejada) to fill the first three spots in the batting order.

Cooper has spent the past month fantasizing about filling the Nos. 4-8 spots with first baseman Lance Berkman, left fielder Carlos Lee, right fielder Hunter Pence, third baseman Ty Wigginton and catcher J.R. Towles.

“If you really think about it, from top to bottom it could be one of the best lineups the Astros have ever had,” Cooper said. “We’ve got speed. We’ve got power. We’ve got guys who hit for average. We’ve got guys who have driven in 100 runs and are very productive like that.

“We have so many ways to score. You should not have long losing streaks when you’re like that.”

Hope is so abundant at this time of year, Cooper isn’t even flinching at the mention of the Astros’ pitching staff. Never mind that the first three starters in line behind perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Oswalt — namely, Wandy Rodriguez, Woody Williams and Brandon Backe — were a combined 20-29 with a 5.09 earned run average last season. Cooper calls them “proven big league pitchers” and touts 24-year-old starting candidate Felipe Paulino as “real special.”

Don’t overlook Nieve

If all else fails, Cooper insists he can turn — confidently — to the likes of Chris Sampson and newly signed minor league free agent Runelvys Hernandez. Oh, and don’t forget Fernando Nieve, who Cooper predicts will be recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery “real soon.”

“Nobody talks about him, and that’s a kid with a big-time arm,” Cooper said. “Everybody is screaming and yelling that we got rid of a lot of pitching, but we still have some guys who can help.”

“They’re looking for the Johan Santanas and Derek Lowes — the No. 1s and No. 2s. But those guys don’t fall off trees. What you’ve got to do is have some depth. We have that.”

Wade went about assembling a bullpen as if bracing for the worst from the starters. The plan is for Doug Brocail, Oscar Villarreal, Chad Paronto, Geoff Geary, Dave Borkowski and Mark McLemore to bridge the gap from the starters to National League saves leader Jose Valverde.

Caveat emptor: The flame-throwing, flamboyant Valverde has never appeared in 45 games in consecutive seasons.

“Our bullpen is probably going to be the best it’s ever been,” Cooper said. “I think our bullpen will be our strength. One of them.”

The 800-pound gorilla in the room that the Astros would like to ignore is the Tejada saga. The Astros traded five players and gave up the rights to Everett to land Tejada, who turned up in the Mitchell Report one day later.

The FBI just announced it has launched an investigation that threatens to leave Tejada indisposed, incarcerated and/or distracted.

“I think a guy is innocent until proven guilty,” Cooper said. “I’m planning on playing Miguel Tejada every day. I’ll play him 162 games. That’ll be some lineup if he’s playing every day.”

That may prove to be a bigger if than the center-field territory the Astros are asking Bourn to cover at Minute Maid Park. Sometimes, though, things do go according to plan. Sometimes things go even better than planned. Sometimes teams have magical seasons.

An abundance of optimism

In the case of the Astros, maybe they won’t even need magic and mirrors. All it took to win the NL Central last year was 85 victories. At least until the subpoenas and starting pitchers start to drop, the new manager might as well enjoy the view of his team through brick-red-colored glasses. He insists all he needs is for his team to have a run of good health.

“I just think we have a chance,” Cooper said. “People say we don’t have pitching, and I don’t buy into that. I’m excited about the prospects of what can happen in 2008.”