With the playoffs finally here, picking Astros’ best of all time

If you’ve got a favorite pro baseball team — one you’ve been a fan of most of your life like I have the Astros, or even one whose bandwagon you hopped on along the way — it’s a pretty sure bet you’ve also got your own team of all-timers from that franchise. They might be guys considered among the best ever to play for that team, or they could just be personal favorites who’d make your list but probably miss the cut on most others’ ballots.

I’ve never compiled my own list of the players I rate as the Astros’ best, but now that they’ve won 100 games for a third straight year, it seems like a pretty good time to do it. I started out planning to pick a top 10, but that turned out to be almost impossible. That’s how I ended up with a list of 17, plus three honorable mentions.

Most of these guys predate the current crop, going as far back as the ’60s to players like Larry Dierker and Joe Morgan, who were with the franchise almost from the beginning of its 58-season history. In fact, I’ve included only one player from the current era — Jose Altuve, for obvious reasons. In a few years, some of today’s stars will undoubtedly push a few of the Astros of yesteryear aside. Some of these picks are written in permanent ink, though — again, it’s pretty plain why.

So here’s my list. If you disagree with any of ’em, let me know. If you think I’ve left anyone off, please feel free to cast your own vote, too.

**Note: The cards pictured are all from my collection, which includes some from my childhood, others from among hundreds that my late father bought at a garage sale about 12 years ago and mailed to me. And, several are among those that my good friend Gary Stratton, a former colleague at The Dallas Morning News, graciously gave me a couple of years ago from the extensive card collection he has compiled over many years. Thank you, Gary!!

Best of the best (in no particular order, with the exception of the first two)

Craig Biggio, 2B: When this catcher out of Seton Hall made his first appearance in the majors at age 22 in 1988, I liked him right off the bat. But I never envisioned he’d be the first career Astro elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Management’s decision to move Biggio from behind the plate to second base in 1992 not only saved his knees and his speed, it turned him into a seven-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glover and a consistent table-setter from the leadoff spot, where he hit an NL-record 53 home runs to lead off a game. His offensive prowess, combined with his franchise longevity, allowed him to set Astros career marks for games, at-bats, hits, runs scored, doubles, total bases and extra-base hits, and he’s second in RBI, walks and steals. No other player in baseball history has 3,000 hits (Biggio finished with 3,060), 600 doubles, 400 steals and 250 homers. For Biggio and his fellow Killer B’s — Bagwell and Berkman — I wish they’d been able to win a World Series together. But No. 7 stands alone at the top of the charts.

Jeff Bagwell, 1B: One hundred years ago this December, the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. On Aug. 30, 1990, the Red Sox traded their top prospect, this hot-hitting third baseman, to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen for a bullpen boost in their push toward the playoffs. (Boston fans rank these the two worst trades in sports history. Of course they would.) The Bosox made the playoffs on the last day of the season, lost in the ALCS, then lost Andersen to free agency. In Bagwell, who would move to first base upon his arrival, the Astros got a 15-year franchise cornerstone, a four-time All-Star who would use his unorthodox crouch to hit over .300 six times, crush 449 home runs, drive in 1,529 runs and help his team get to the playoffs six times. Oh, and he’s in Cooperstown along with his best friend. Some criticize Bagwell and Biggio for their lackluster playoff showings. But their careers were more than Hall-worthy, and I’ll argue that with anyone. 

Jose Cruz, OF: The Astros have had many popular players over their 58 seasons, but none more than this hustling, sweet-swinging Puerto Rican. Every time Cheo came to the plate or got a big hit between 1975 and 1987, the Astrodome reverberated with the sounds of “Cruuuuuuuuuuz!” The two-time All-Star was a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams (1980, ’81 and ’86) and hit a blistering .400 against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS. An even more remarkable show of Cruz’s unbreakable Astros ties: He was also a coach for six playoff teams (1997-99, 2001, 2004-05), and an assistant to the GM for the postseason runs in 2015 and 2017. Incredibly, Cruz still holds the Astros’ record for career triples (80) and walk-off home runs (6). A model of consistency from the left side of the plate, he topped .300 six times and hit .292 overall in his 13 seasons in Houston, in addition to hitting 138 homers in the pitcher-friendly Dome.

Nolan Ryan, RHP: It was no coincidence that the year the best pitcher in the history of the game joined the Astros, in 1980, they finally tasted division-winning, playoff-clinching champagne. His superhuman right arm helped guide them to the postseason again in 1981 and ’86, but the World Series remained out of reach. Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in ’81 and won the league ERA title that year at 1.69. I’ll never forget his unbelievable 1987 season, when — at age 40 — he led the majors with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts but finished with an 8-16 record because the Astros gave him such paltry run support. In a PR disaster some fans never forgave owner John McMullen for, Ryan didn’t re-sign with the Astros after a contract dispute, instead joining the Texas Rangers before the ’89 season at age 42. But he gave Houston nine great years, 106 wins, a 3.13 ERA and 1,866 of his never-to-be-touched 5,714 career K’s. And before we move on to the next guy, I gotta throw this out: Most know Ryan holds the record with 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller. But did you know he also has the most two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (31)? Infinitely mind-blowing.

Lance Berkman, OF/1B: Drafted after playing his college ball at Rice University in Houston, Berkman cemented his name in Astros lore with his dependable bat and left-handed power that deposited many a pitch into the short porch in left field at Minute Maid Park. Not the least of those opposite-fielders was his eighth-inning grand slam that helped rally the Astros from a 6-1 deficit in one of the most thrilling playoff games in MLB history, an 18-inning, 7-6 victory over the Braves in the 2005 NLDS — ended by Chris Burke’s blast to those same Crawford Boxes to win it after almost six hours (and I was there!!). Berkman, who hit an unbelievable .385 for his college career, hit .296 in his 12 seasons as an Astro and wound up with 366 career homers (including his years with the Cardinals, Rangers and Yankees). Although I wish he’d won a championship with the Astros, it was great to see him get there with the Cards in 2011 — and play such a vital role — even though it came against the Rangers, a team I’d become a fan of living in the D-FW area for over 30 years (that fandom ended when the Astros moved to the AL). It was a classy move by the club to let Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt sign one-day contracts to retire as Astros in 2014.

Jose Altuve, 2B: In nine seasons — including the three straight 100-loss years when the team was painfully rebuilding into the winner it is now — all he’s done is make six All-Star teams and win three AL batting titles, one league MVP and five Silver Sluggers. As an all-fields-hitting, lightning-fast defensive whiz who’s no taller than a chest of drawers, Altuve’s been a spark like no other, the energy constant that’s made the Astros go since joining the team in 2011. He’s had over 200 hits four times in his career, and his current total of 1,568 puts him ahead of the pace all-time leader Pete Rose set on his way to 4,256 by the time he finally retired at 45 (Altuve’s 29). Sure, he’s a free swinger and can look pretty silly reaching for sliders a foot outside. But when he makes contact with those pitcher’s pitches and sends ’em to the opposite field for hits, no one’s arguing with his approach. He can be streaky, and I’ll be the first to admit getting down on him when he doesn’t come through in key RISP moments. Most unbelievable about Altuve’s production is the power he generates from his alleged 5-6 frame. He’s hit a career-best 31 of his 128 home runs this season, and they’re not all pull shots. It’s no fluke he’s on this list.

Roy Oswalt, RHP: As the rotation’s ace most of his 10 years in Houston, this tough, cool-headed performer with the Mississippi drawl had an incredible run starting in 2001. He helped lead the Astros to the playoffs in his rookie year, compiling a 14-3 record with a masterful 2.73 ERA and finishing fifth in Cy Young voting. I mean, Oswalt was always nails. If the Astros were slumping and needed a stopper, he stepped up. He averaged a nifty 7.4 strikeouts per nine as an Astro, but he also pitched to contact and let his defense take care of the rest. Roy O went 143-82 in Houston with a 3.24 ERA, winning 20 games twice — in 2004 and ’05, when the team advanced to the NLCS and its first World Series. His biggest moment came that year, when he pitched the Astros into the Series by coming up huge in Game 6 in St. Louis — after Albert Pujols’ three-run tape-measure shot off closer Brad Lidge kept them from closing out the series in Houston. Glad I got to see him pitch a couple of times, including once when the Astros played the Rangers in Arlington in one of his last years in Houston. Ironically, Oswalt ended up spending 2012, his next-to-last season, with the Rangers.

Larry Dierker, RHP: As a kid listening to Gene Elston and Loel Passe broadcast Astros games on radio, I fell in love not only with them, but with many of the players. Rarely (never?) were they on TV, and only a handful of times each year did we see them in person when we attended games at the Astrodome. But Dierk was one of those guys I grew up admiring, for his longevity, his consistency and his downright likability. In later years, as he became a broadcaster for the team, then a manager, my respect only grew. How can you not love a guy who made his major-league debut on his 18th birthday in 1964 — and struck out Willie Mays in the first inning? Dierker laid a foundation for the Astros’ starting rotation until 1976 — the year he pitched his only no-hitter, against the Expos, prompting a headline in the Houston Chronicle to proclaim “Long-suffering Dierker pitches no-hitter.” You might look at his record as a Colt .45/Astro (137-117) and think he was pretty average. But when you consider how pedestrian the team’s offense was most of his career, and see that his ERA in 14 seasons in Houston was a sparkling 3.31, you realize how steadily solid he really was. Mostly because of low run support, Dierker won 20 games only once — in 1969, when he became the franchise’s first 20-game winner. He’s easily one of the greats.

J.R. Richard, RHP: The giant who stood 6-foot-8, fearlessly stared down hitters, then threw 100-mph heat that often ended up at the backstop — he led the NL in wild pitches three times, including a record six in one game — was forced to retire just when the world was about to get a chance to see his greatness in the playoffs. During the 1980 season, when he was only 30 and the Astros would finally get to the postseason, Richard suffered a stroke before a game that July. All he’d done to that point was lead the NL in strikeouts twice, ERA once, fewest hits per game three times, and win 18 games three times. Before Randy Johnson, Richard was the most imposing figure most NL hitters had ever seen on the mound. Until Gerrit Cole broke it this year, Richard held the Astros’ season record for strikeouts with 313, set in 1979. He tried to make a comeback, spending several years in the minors, but never had the same dominance. Richard later went through hardship that included two divorces and homelessness, but he’s now a minister and doing great. 

Mike Scott, RHP: Scott came to the Astros in 1983, a below-average pitcher who’d gone 14-27 in four seasons with the Mets. There was no reason to think he’d blossom into anything special. He showed flashes his first year, going 10-6, then slipped to 5-11 in ’84. A season later, Scott transformed into an ace after learning the split-finger fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig. That year, he went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA, but the Astros finished 12 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. In 1986, Scott’s split finger became even more devastating, not only carrying the Astros to the division title — remarkably, he clinched the crown with a no-hitter against the Giants at the Astrodome, the defining moment of Scott’s career. He went on to dominate the Mets in the NLCS, winning Games 1 and 4, but the Astros would fall short in six games. If only it had gotten to Game 7, where Scott was waiting on short rest. Scott’s brilliance that year — 18-10 record, 2.22 ERA, 306 strikeouts — earned him the Cy Young.

Jimmy Wynn, OF: One of the franchise’s original star-power players, Wynn played in Houston from 1963 to ’73. Generously listed at 5-10, 160, he was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for a reason, hitting 223 of his 291 career homers during his years in the Bayou City. He hit a career-high 37 in 1967, when he also had 107 RBI and was an All-Star, and topped 30 homers two other times — including when he was traded to the Dodgers in ’74 and was named Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 32 homers with 108 RBI. And who remembers the monumental blasts by Wynn and Doug Rader, the first hit into the Dome’s gold upper-deck seats? Every time we attended a game after April 1970, I looked high above left field for the Toy Cannon and Red Rooster seats, painted to commemorate the shots hit that month by Wynn and Rader. In my first job as a sports writer in Odessa in 1983, I had the chance to meet Wynn at a charity golf event in Midland, interview him and write a column. Good times.

Cesar Cedeño, CF/1B: The first Astros player touted as a five-tool potential superstar, the free agent from the Dominican made his debut with the team at age 19 in 1970. He quickly became a fan favorite after hitting .310 that year, then hit .320 in ’72 and ’73, prompting Astros manager Leo Durocher to compare Cedeño to Willie Mays at that age. Cedeño went on to win five Gold Gloves in center field, stole 50 or more bases six times, and was voted to four All-Star teams, but would hit .300 just once more — in 1980, when the Astros made the playoffs for the first time. Cedeño was a great player, but most folks say he never lived up to the greatness projected for him. Count me as being on the fringes of that group, but I’m not willing to say he was a bust. The expectations were set too high, especially when you start putting a guy in the same conversation as a legend like Mays — and when said guy, at age 21, beats out Roberto Clemente to start an All-Star Game. All in all, though, a solid career and an all-time great Astro.

Billy Wagner, LHP/closer: As tough and nasty a relief pitcher as has ever put on an Astros uniform, Wagner spent nine seasons in Houston — long enough to record a franchise-best 225 saves, 694 strikeouts, an amazing 12.4 K/9 ratio and a 2.53 ERA. He was a seven-time All-Star — four of those *after* he left the Astros — and went on to finish his career with 422 saves over 16 seasons. Simply put, Wagner is the best left-handed reliever in the history of the game. And we wouldn’t be saying that if, when he was 7 years old, the natural right-hander hadn’t broken his arm playing football, then broken it again, prompting him to decide to start throwing baseballs left-handed. Hmm, Billy’s only 42. Wonder if he’d be willing to come out of retirement?

Joe Morgan, 2B: Although the native Texan achieved most of his greatness after being traded from the Astros to the Reds in late 1971, he makes this list hands down. (After all, he did come back to town to help the Astros earn their first playoff berth in 1980.) “Little Joe,” he of the signature arm-flapping motion at the plate, played in Houston for nine seasons starting in 1963, becoming a rock at second base. But desperate for power, the team traded him, infielder Denis Menke and two teammates to the Reds for Lee May and two other players, and Morgan went on to win two World Series rings and an MVP in Cincinnati. Some might question my including Morgan because his contributions to the Houston franchise were fairly minimal (and manager Harry Walker reportedly thought he was a troublemaker) compared to what he did for the Reds. And a lot of folks didn’t care for him as a broadcaster, although I didn’t have a problem with him there. But Morgan did make an impact during his years in Houston, and there’s no questioning his overall contributions to baseball.

Yes, that’s an autographed Terry Puhl card, which my dear wife Kay bought for me a few years ago, all because she knew he was my favorite Astros player ever.

Terry Puhl, OF: Before you do a double-take, let me offer up that this Canadian-born outfielder, who fits perfectly into the good-guy mold this franchise has always had, makes the list because he’s at the top of my ranking of favorite Astros players. So, case closed. TP always went about the game quietly and like a pro, and he was revered and respected both in the clubhouse and in the stands. My affinity for the team’s longtime leadoff man and left fielder started in July 1977, when I was 16 and Dad and I were sitting in left at the Dome as Puhl, called up that day at age 21, entered as a defensive replacement against the Dodgers. The next night, he got his first major league hit in the 13th inning and scored the winning run on a Bob Watson double. Fourteen Astros seasons later, he’d amassed 1,357 hits, a .281 average and three seasons of .301 or better — including that rookie year. For years, Puhl’s offensive show against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS — 10 hits in 19 at-bats for a .526 average (and he didn’t even start Game 1) — stood untouched as the best in series history. Take a well-deserved bow, TP.

Joe Niekro, RHP: An average pitcher whose contract the Astros picked up from the Braves for $35,000 turned into one of the club’s biggest bargains ever. Thanks to his perfection of the knuckleball — which brother Phil fluttered past hitters on his way to the Hall of Fame — Joe became a workhorse in the Houston rotation. He pitched over 200 innings eight times in a nine-year stretch from 1978 to ’85, including a career-high 270 in 1982, when he threw a personal-best 16 of his 107 career complete games. Niekro had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979 and ’80, and by the time he’d pitched 11 years in the Dome before being traded to the Yankees in 1985, he’d piled up 144 wins for the Astros, still a franchise best. He wound up with 221 in his career, and combined with Phil’s 318, the pair’s 539 victories made them the top-winning brother duo in history. Sadly, Joe died of a brain aneurysm in 2006 when he was just 61.

Bob Watson, 1B: “The Bull” spent 14 long years in Houston, never getting the chance to be on a playoff team but coming close a couple of times. What a strong leader and dependable lineup anchor he was all those years, blasting 139 dingers and driving in 782 runs in the Dome while consistently hitting for a high average. Watson, who went on to play for the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves, put up a .297 average as an Astro, including three seasons of .312 or above. He made the All-Star team in 1973 and ’75, and had the distinction of scoring baseball’s millionth run in May ’75 on a three-run homer by Milt May at Candlestick Park. (The feat won him $10,000 and a million Tootsie Rolls.) Watson went on to be general manager of the Astros and Yankees before a long tenure in the MLB front office. In recent years, Watson has suffered kidney disease and has turned down offers of transplants from his two children. Hang in there, Bull.

Honorable mention

Glenn Davis, 1B: Power-hitting mainstay of the Astros’ teams from 1984 to 1990, especially the 1986 outfit that pushed the eventual champion Mets to the limit in the NLCS. The two-time All-Star hit 166 bombs as an Astro with a high of 34 in 1989, putting up a monster year with 31 homers and 101 RBI in helping guide the Astros to the NL West title in ’86. Davis finished second in the NL MVP voting that year.

Dave Smith, RHP/closer: The junk-throwing righty saved 199 games (second in team history) for the Astros between 1980 and 1990 during a time when the use of closers on a regular basis was still evolving. From my faulty memory, he became the first pitcher the Astros used on a regular basis to finish out games. Smith’s highest save total (33) came during the ’86 NLCS season, and he made All-Star teams that year and in 1990. Smith died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1990.

Doug Rader, 3B: The Red Rooster gets mention here for his nine seasons of leadership as an Astro and for his stellar defense at the hot corner that earned him five Gold Gloves from 1970 to 1974. At the plate, Rader never hit for average and was strikeout-prone, but he had pop, hitting 128 home runs in the cavernous Dome and driving in 600. He had four seasons of 83 or more RBI, proving he came through in the clutch more often than not.

2 thoughts on “With the playoffs finally here, picking Astros’ best of all time

    1. Hey, Stew, how are ya?! I agree, Springer and JV are greats. But I’m not sure we can put them in the all-time Astros greats category yet. Especially JV, who hasn’t been around long enough. Springer is right there. And I love Thon, and he would’ve been a superstar if not for the beaning, but his numbers really weren’t that great. I did realize I made a mistake leaving Watson off, so I added him. And Sambito should probably be on there. And maybe I really should add Springer. Let me check his numbers and get back to you. 😊 Today’s the day! Go Astros!!!!

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