Astros sign veteran outfielder Hidalgo

Astros sign veteran outfielder Hidalgo

HOUSTON -- Richard Hidalgo, author of one of the best offensive seasons in Astros franchise history, will get another chance to contribute to the Astros after the club signed the veteran outfielder to a Minor League contract on Friday and invited the 31-year-old to Spring Training.

If Hidalgo makes the Major League club, he will earn $850,000 in 2007. An incentive clause gives him a chance to earn as much as $2.5 million.

Astros general manager Tim Purpura became interested in possibly bringing Hidalgo back to the organization in October, when he visited the former Houston right fielder in Venezuela. Hidalgo played for Magallanes in the Venezuelan League this winter, and Purpura received numerous favorable reports from manager Al Pedrique, one of Purpura's top assistants.

In 54 games for Magallanes, Hidalgo hit .273 with nine home runs and 27 RBIs, through games of Jan. 10. At that point, Hidalgo led the team in home runs, RBIs, walks (31), runs scored (33) and hits (51).

Pedrique's recommendation convinced Purpura to extend the Minor League contract offer to Hidalgo, who last wore an Astros uniform in 2004.

"His arm strength is back, his running is back, he's driving the ball," Purpura said. "Over the weekend, Al said he hit a rocket shot for a home run that went 400 feet, and it was a line drive.

"His bat speed's back, his power is back. He's using the whole field and not pulling the ball."

In 2000, Hidalgo hit .314 with 44 home runs and 122 RBIs in 153 games for the Astros. His 2000 campaign made him only the fourth player in club history to hit 30 home runs, score at least 100 runs and drive in at least 100 runs in the same season. At the time, Hidalgo's 44-homer season was only the fourth 40-homer season in Houston franchise history, including the franchise-record 47-homer effort by Jeff Bagwell during the same season. Hidalgo earned Astros Most Valuable Player honors from the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 2003, when he hit .309 with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs.

Hidalgo's production dropped in 2004, prompting a midseason trade that sent him to the Mets for right-handers Jeremy Griffiths and David Weathers. Hidalgo hit .228 for New York and signed with the Rangers the following season, but he hit just .221. He did not play in the big leagues in 2006.

The Astros will start Carlos Lee in left field, and they are expected to go with Chris Burke in center and Luke Scott in right. Jason Lane, last year's Opening Day right fielder, is also in the mix and Hidalgo, a right fielder with a plus arm, could also push for playing time if he has a solid Spring Training.

"He's got a reasonable chance to come back," Purpura said. "I think he's put the past behind him. He knows he has to prove himself again. He played winter ball with no promises from us. He knew he had to do it to get someone's attention."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.