Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hunter Pence, Leading Rivals, Faces Cut by Astros

The loudspeakers at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., blared "This May Be the Last Time" by the Rolling Stones between innings of the Astros 9-8 loss to the Marlins Thursday. It was an especially poignant tune for upstart phenom Hunter Pence.

Pence -- hitting .667 with a homer every 10 at-bats -- leads not only the Astros but the rest of the league in a half dozen offensive categories, yet is virtually assured to be among the final cuts before camp breaks March 29, a clubhouse insider told

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said the decision to cut the former second round pick has yet to be made, but Pence will almost assuredly be named to the roster of Nolan Ryan's Double A Corpus Christi Hooks or Triple A Round Rock Express, both in South Texas. Only extraordinary circumstances such a series of injuries to the projected starters would save Pence from being cut, it was predicted.

If correct, that's good news for center fielder Chris Burke, who stands to lose playing time to Pence.

Though his bat has recently shown some life, Burke came into Thursday's game hitting .111 and has been the focus of critics considering him a possible candidate for demotion to the bench or the minors. But the team is committed to Burke, who is an outstanding bunter and showed decent leather while hitting a respectable .276 with a .347 OBP and nearly a dozen bags last year.

Meanwhile closer Brad Lidge continued to struggle in Thursday's loss. Lidge's ERA ballooned to 13.50 as he gave up two hits, two walks and three runs while facing just seven batters.

Pence, 23, was presented with his ring this week for his part in leading the Hooks to the Texas League championship last year. Pence is seen as a mid- or late-season callup, and is envisioned as an ultimate replacement for Burke in center field when Burke moves to second base. Second base will open up after veteran Craig Biggio, 40, reduces activity after reaching the 3,000-hit plateau, then ultimately retires.

Pence is regarded as a competent fielder with a strong arm and has little to prove with his bat, having hit .339 in the Arizona Fall League, plus .283 with 28 homers last year at Corpus Christi. Coaches, however, want him to work to stop chasing outside pitches out of the zone.