No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.
Here is Brian McTaggart’s ranking of the top 5 left fielders in Astros history. Next week: Center field.
• Houston's All-Time team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS
1. Lance Berkman, 1999-2010
Key fact: .959 OPS is second highest in Astros history
Berkman is one of the three greatest offensive players in franchise history, joining Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but he started at four different positions in his career -- all three outfield spots and first base. Because he played more outfield before transitioning to first base in the middle of his career, we’re considering him as an outfielder for this project, and in the outfield, he started more in left field than any other spot (447 starts in left with Houston).
With Bagwell entrenched at first, Berkman came up as an outfielder and started 111 games in left in 2001 and 153 in '03. Only four players in franchise history have made more Opening Day starts in left field than Berkman’s three: José Cruz (eight), Luis Gonzalez (six), Carlos Lee (five) and Bob Watson (five).
Overall, Berkman ranks fourth in club history in games played (1,592), fifth in hits (1,648), second in homers (326), and third in runs scored (1,008), RBIs (1,090), doubles (375) and extra-base hits (727). With the Astros, he was a five-time All-Star who set the club record of 136 RBIs in 2006. Berkman hit .317 in 52 career playoff games, mostly with the Astros.
Berkman, who played at Rice University, was surprised when the Astros drafted him with the 16th overall pick in 1997. Even though he played in their backyard, the Astros hadn’t scouted him.
“It was totally out of left field -- pardon the pun -- to be drafted by the Astros,” he said. “My first reaction was kind of like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that at all.’ And then I started to realize I was getting to stay close to home and having the opportunity to be a part of an organization that’s in the same town where I went to college -- and knowing after having talked to them I was expected to play left field -- you get your head around that, and it was very exciting.”
2. José Cruz, 1975-87
Key fact: 51.4 bWAR with Astros is third to only Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio
One of the most popular players in club history, Cruz was named the team's MVP four times (1977, '80, '83-84) and played 13 of his 19 big league seasons in Houston. He retired with 2,251 career hits, 165 homers, 1,077 RBIs and 317 stolen bases and still holds the Astros’ career record with 80 triples.
“He is one of the most underrated, underappreciated players in the history of the game,” said former teammate Bill Doran. “Not by his teammates; we all knew. There wasn’t a better hitter, a better teammate. There wasn’t a better guy in baseball than José.”
Every time Cruz came to bat in Houston, the Astrodome's public address announcer would introduce him as “José Cruuuuuuuz” -- a chant he still receives and appreciates to this day.
“The first time I heard that, you cannot tell if they were booing me or rooting for me,” he said. “I realized in time, when I listened to that, it was good for me.”
Cruz was a left-handed pull hitter when he was acquired by the Astros from the Cardinals in 1974, and one day he overheard a conversation Pete Rose was having with Rusty Staub, telling him to use all fields. That made sense to Cruz, especially playing in the cavernous Astrodome. His career took off in Houston.
“He’s the most dangerous hitter of my era for the Astros, no question about that,” said outfielder Terry Puhl, who played for Houston from 1977-90.
3. Carlos Lee, 2007-12
Key fact: Averaged 26 homers and 101 RBIs in first five seasons in Houston
Unlike Berkman and Cruz, Lee wasn’t a popular player in Houston despite being very productive. Signed to what was then a club-record six-year, $100 million deal prior to the 2007 season, Houston fans routinely questioned Lee’s work ethic and physical shape. And the fact his contract wound up to be an albatross didn’t help. They couldn’t question his numbers, though.
Lee played 162 games in 2007 and slashed .303/.354/.528 with 32 homers and 119 RBIs, making his lone All-Star team as a member of the Astros. The only time Lee didn’t play in at least 155 games in his first five years in Houston was in '08, when he injured his thumb in August and missed the rest of the year. Still, he drove in 100 runs in 115 games. The Astros traded Lee to the Marlins in '12, and he didn’t play following that season.
4. Moises Alou, 1998, 2000-01
Key fact: Owns club record for career batting average (.331) and OPS (.988)
Traded to the Astros in November 1997 after helping the Marlins win the World Series, Alou strengthened a Houston lineup that included Hall of Famers Biggio and Bagwell, and he was a key figure on two playoff clubs. Alou played three seasons in Houston, sitting out the '99 season after tearing his ACL by falling off a treadmill during the offseason.
In those three seasons, he made two All-Star teams and finished third in National League MVP Award voting in ’98 when he slashed .312/.399/.582 with 38 homers and 124 RBIs. In the first year of Minute Maid Park (then called Enron Field) in 2000, Alou hit .355 -- the second-highest single-season mark in club history behind Bagwell’s .368 in his MVP Award season of 1994.
5. Luis Gonzalez, 1990-95, '97
Key fact: 15.1 bWAR is fourth-highest among Astros left fielders
Before he was putting up gaudy home run numbers and leading the D-backs to the 2001 World Series title, Gonzalez was drafted and developed by the Astros, coming up to the big leagues shortly after Biggio arrived and before Bagwell was acquired. Gonzalez was a steady presence in left field over the next five seasons before being dealt to the Cubs on June 28, 1995.
Gonzalez’s best year in Houston came in 1993 when he hit .300 with 15 homers and 72 RBIs in 154 games. He re-signed with the Astros as a free agent prior to the '97 season and later became a star in Arizona, slugging 224 homers in eight seasons there.
• Bob Watson (1966-79) started 560 games in left field for the Astros from '68-75 but was listed among the team’s greatest first basemen in franchise history for this project.
• Billy Hatcher (1986-89) was the club’s primary starting left fielder from ’87-89, stealing 145 bases in four seasons in Houston.
• Colby Rasmus (2015-16) had a bang-up season while helping the Astros reach the playoffs in ’15, hitting 25 homers with 61 RBIs and a .789 OPS, but he fell off dramatically in ’16.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.