Friday, March 10, 2017

1981 Astros Future Stars


And if you'll walk this way you will see a real treasure. A gorgeous piece of American Folk Art. Indulge me for a second...

Danny Heep was the Astros' 2nd Round draft pick (#37 overall) out of St. Mary's University in San Antonio in the 1978 draft. He was an All-American pitcher in 1976 and 1978. His professional debut came at Single-A Daytona Beach where, in 66 games (265 PAs), Heep hit .340/.462/.472. Twenty-two of his 72 hits were for extra bases, but even more impressive were his 50 walks to 25 strikeouts, at a year and a half younger than his average competition.

He opened 1979 at Double-A Columbus. In 138 games (581 PAs), Heep hit .327/.385/.524. He jumped from two homers in 1978 to 21 in 1979 to go along with 30 doubles. He posted another impressive K:BB ratio with 32 strikeouts and 49 walks. That Columbus team went 84-59, best in the Southern League, with some familiar names attached to it. Heep's neighbor to the right on the above card was on it. So was future Tri-City ValleyCats manager Jim Pankovits. Current Astros pitching coach Brent Strom went 3-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 47IP as the 30-year old tried to work his way back to the Majors after allowing 23H/23ER, 8K:12BB in an eight-game stint with the 1977 Padres.

Heep's performance to that point earned him a call-up to the Astros in September 1979. In 14 games (17 PAs) he went 2x14 with 2RBI, 4K:1BB - a .143/.176/.143 line. His first hit came in his 4th PA, a 2-1 loss to the Giants on September 8. His next hit came on the final day of the season - with the division just out of reach - off of Rick Sutcliffe. Thirteen of his 14 appearances for the 1979 Astros were as a pinch-hitter, but in G162 Heep started and batted cleanup. Later in that game Heep hit a sac fly off Sutcliffe to score the game-winning run.

As an aside, Heep's lone walk for the '79 Astros came in a crucial series against the Reds, with whom the Astros were locked in a tight division race. Tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 13th, with runners on 1st and 2nd, Heep pinch-hit for closer Joe Sambito. Reds pitcher Tom Hume intentionally walked Heep to face catcher Bruce Bochy. Bochy hit a one-out single to left to score Craig Reynolds and win the game, cutting the Reds' NL West lead to 1.5 games. Houston would go 4-5 down the stretch, the Reds went 3-4, but the Astros couldn't catch Cincinnati.

1980 saw Heep at Triple-A Tucson. In 96 games he hit .343/.398/.570 with 36K:36BB. When Art Howe got hit in the face with a pitch at Montreal, Heep was called up to play a sporadic first base. Over 33 games (97 PAs) Heep hit .276/.340/.368 with 9K:8BB to go with eight doubles and 6RBI. Heep went 3x3 with a walk and an RBI in the front-end of a double header against Montreal on July 19 and added three more hits at Montreal on July 25 and 26. Heep had another great day on August 17 at San Diego, going 3x5 with two doubles and an RBI and starting a season-high five-game hit streak. The 1980 Astros went 93-70, winning the NL West and of course losing a heart-breaking NLCS to the Phillies. Heep's lone NLCS action game in the bottom of the 10th in the deciding Game 5, pinch-hitting for RF Gary Woods. He popped out to short to lead off the inning.

Heep's minor-league numbers got him included on the above baseball card.

Heep established that he didn't need to see any more time in the minors with his 1981 season. Back at Tucson for 78 games, Heep hit .337/.433/.568, hitting 23 doubles, five triples, and 11 homers to go with 19K:47BB. He again got called up for another 33 games, playing 1B (spelling Cesar Cedeno) and RF (spelling Terry Puhl), Heep hit .250/.321/.281. He wasn't exactly taking advantage of his opportunity(ies).

Heep's final shot with the Astros came in 1982 when he played in 85 games (222 PAs), primarily back at RF/1B with a little bit of time in LF. In those 85 games he hit .237/.311/.379. Heep hit his first career MLB homer on May 14 against the Cubs in a 6-3 loss. And so, in December 1982, the Astros traded Heep to the Mets for pitcher Mike Scott.

In four seasons with the Mets, Scott was 14-27 with a 4.64 ERA/1.47 WHIP. In 364.2IP he had struck out 151 batters, but walked 122. He would enter his Age 28 season in 1983. Heep would be entering his Age-25 season. It worked out for the Astros, but both would hit their strike in 1986 (Heep was Nolan Ryan's 4000th career strikeout on July 11, 1985).

1986 Danny Heep hit .282/.379/.421 for a career-high .799 OPS. After learning a split-finger fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig in 1985 - a season in which he won 18 games, Scott broke out in 1986. He had a league-leading 2.22 ERA with a league-leading 0.92 WHIP, going 18-10 with a league-leading 306 strikeouts in a league-leading 275.1IP with a league-leading 4.25 K:BB ratio, locking up the Cy Young Award after throwing a no-hitter against the Dodgers to clinch the NL West.

We all know how the 1986 NLCS went, but Heep went 1x4 with a sac fly and an RBI in a pinch-hitting role.

Heep would go on to play 883 games in the Majors with a .257/.330/.357 line for the Astros, Mets, Dodgers, and Braves. Heep has been the head coach of Incarnate Word in San Antonio since 1998, making the NCAA regionals four times. Incarnate Word made the jump to D1 in 2014, and Heep has gone 25-56 in those three seasons.
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Alan Knicely was drafted as a pitcher in the 3rd Round of the 1974 draft out of Ashby HS in Bridgewater, Virginia. It went alright. Not great. For Rookie-League Covington in 1974 he allowed 78H/31ER, 53K:42BB - a 3.44 ERA/1.48 WHIP. In 1975 for Single-A Dubuque he went 4-10 with a 3.61 ERA/1.43 WHIP, the walks getting him again with 87K:62BB in 122IP. Back at Dubuque for the 1976 season, he went 7-3 with a 3.95 ERA but - improbably - again with the 87K:62BB in 15 fewer innings. He made 14 starts for Double-A Columbus in 1977, throwing 42IP, 40H/24ER, 25K:25BB - a 5.14 ERA/1.55 WHIP. His ERA and WHIP grew every year.

So the Astros turned him into a position player. Starting in 1978 the Astros had Knicely at catcher and shortstop. In 1978 he played in 140 games for Double-A Columbus, hitting .227/.311/.372 with 15 homers. The following season he broke out. In 120 games, again for Columbus, Knicely hit .289/.383/.566 with 12 doubles, three triples, and 33 home runs (beating Danny Heep by 12 HR) to go with 77K:61BB. It got him seven games in Houston where he went 0x6 with 3K:2BB.

In 1980 Knicely spent the season at Triple-A Tucson where he hit .318/.396/.515 - 18 doubles and 22 homers with 76K:61BB. He spent 124 games behind the plate where he committed 23 errors and allowed 16 passed balls. With catchers Alan Ashby and Luis Pujols faring better defensively at catcher, Knicely needed to find another position. He was 0x1 with a strikeout for Houston in 1980.

Still, the 55 homers in two seasons got him a spot on a baseball card.

Again Knicely spent 1981 in Tucson, hitting .306/.393/.502 with 73K:73BB and 32 doubles to go with 18 homers. He spent three games in Houston in 1981, getting a memorable seven plate appearances. Nicely got a single in his ML debut, pinch-hitting for Terry Puhl in the 9th inning of an eventual 9-0 Houston win on September 17. On October 3 at Chavez Ravine, Knicely hit a homer off Bob Welch in his 2nd career ML plate appearance, getting the Astros on the board in what would be a 7-2 Astros loss. The next day Knicely got his first ML start, hitting 5th and playing catcher. He went 2x4 with an 8th inning homer off Dave Goltz in the 8th to tie the game in an eventual 5-3 Astros win.

Knicely spent 59 games with the 1982 Astros as a utility man. In those 149 PAs he hit .188/.270/.248 - matching the total homers (2) as he had in seven plate appearances in 1981. He was traded to Cincinnati prior to the 1983 season for Bill Dawley and Tony Walker. Dawley went 11-4 as a reliever for the 1984 Astros with a 1.93 ERA/1.19 WHIP. Tony Walker hit .222/.307/.367 in 84 games as a PH/CF for the 1986 Astros.
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Bobby Sprowl, a left-handed pitcher out of the University of Alabama, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 2nd Round of the 1977 draft - after Kevin Bass (Brewers) but before Mookie Wilson (Mets) in the round. In his senior season at Alabama Sprowl led the nation in K/9 with 115 strikeouts in 92 innings.

Sprowl soured Red Sox fans with his start on September 10, 1978, the second game after manager Don Zimmer called him up from Triple-A Pawtucket. Remember that the Yankees were 14.5 GB of Boston in July 1978. In the 4th game of a September series against the Yankees, Zimmer tabbed Sprowl for the start over Bill "Spaceman" Lee (who was 10-10 with a 3.50 ERA, though 44K:57BB to that point in the season) . It was Sprowl's - who was drafted 15 months earlier - second career Major-League start. Sprowl didn't get three outs. He threw 0.2IP, 1H/3ER, 0K:4BB in a game that allowed the Yankees to tie the Red Sox for the AL East lead. The Yankees would win the division on Bucky Dent's 7th-inning, 3-run go-ahead homer in G163. Sprowl - according to the aforementioned-link - would take on Bill Buckner-level scapegoating for that start.

In June 1979 the Red Sox sent Sprowl to Houston as the PTBNL in a deal that sent Pete Ladd to Houston and future Astros and Yankees GM Bob Watson to Boston. Ladd never pitched for Boston, but would throw 4IP for Milwaukee in the 1982 postseason, allowing 1H/0ER, 5K:2BB. The 23-year old Sprowl threw 112IP for Triple-A Charleston with a 3.86 ERA/1.19 WHIP. In 4IP for the 1979 Astros, he allowed 1H/0ER, 3K:2BB.

In Triple-A Tucson for the 1980 season, Sprowl posted a 4.35 ERA/1.61 WHIP, striking out 89 in 170 IP and walking 79 batters. Sprowl made one appearance for the 1980 Astros, in the 7th inning of a September 23 9-4 loss at San Diego. He struck out the side around a hit and a walk in a scoreless outing. And he's on this baseball card.

Sprowl spent his entire 1981 season in Houston - 28.2IP. He was 0-1 with a 5.97 ERA and 1.88 WHIP. His first three appearances of 1981 went okay: 3IP, 3H/0ER, 5K:1BB. He allowed 3ER in consecutive road appearances at Chicago and Cincinnati. Sprowl got his first Astros start against St. Louis on May 14, when he allowed 4H/1R (0ER), 3K:2BB in a game the Astros would somehow lose 7-6. Five days later he'd allow 4H/3ER in 2IP against the same Cardinals. He would five up at least one earned run in six of his next eight Astros appearances, bouncing between Tucson and Houston.

Following the 1983 season the Astros traded Sprowl to Baltimore for Craig Minetto, who never pitched for the Astros. Sprowl is currently the head coach of the Shelton State Community College baseball team in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article. I was in the stands for Heep's big game in San Diego and thought he might be the next big thing....but the team never seemed to want to give him a full shot, and he never played quite well enough to force them to. Considering his so-so power would have had to been a great hitter to take over at 1B.

Remember Knicely as well, hoped he could upgrade the catching....but you could tell he was mostly a bat-first catcher. And I thought we had a real steal in Sprowl, who I thought must have been a hot prospect to have been brought up and started in a pennant race.....turned out he was not really a top prospect, more like "best available at the moment".