HOUSTON -- Unlike last year, when the club was still reeling from the sign-stealing scandal that led to changes at manager and general manager, the Astros will be entering Spring Training in 2021 with more stability and continued high expectations.
The Astros, who stumbled through last year’s regular season with a 29-31 record, saw their reign in the American League West end when the A’s snapped their streak of division championships at three, but Houston eliminated Oakland in the postseason and came within a game of reaching the World Series. The Astros say goodbye to star outfielder George Springer but remain the team to beat in the AL West and will seek their fifth consecutive trip to the AL Championship Series in manager Dusty Baker’s second season at the helm.
As pitchers and catchers hit the field in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, here are some frequently asked questions surrounding the 2021 Astros heading into camp.
Given the pandemic, how is Spring Training going to be different this year?
Before the players could even hit the field in West Palm Beach, they had to quarantine for five days. Many of the protocols they went through during the 2020 regular season remain, including frequent COVID-19 testing and social distancing methods on and off the field. The Astros will stagger workouts during camp, meaning different groups of players could work out at different times.
What are the key roster/position battles to watch?
The Astros’ 26-man roster is pretty much set, barring injuries. The last spot on the bench and last spot in the bullpen are the only question marks as camp begins. Houston returns its entire starting infield of Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, as well as an experienced catcher corps with Martín Maldonado and Jason Castro and a bullpen led by Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith and newcomers Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek. Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley return to anchor the corner-outfield spots.
Is Myles Straw the future in center field?
The loss of Springer to the Blue Jays punched a huge hole in the Astros’ lineup. The club didn’t acquire anyone to replace Springer, which means the job appears to be Straw’s to lose. The speedy Straw has appeared in 98 games over the past three seasons and posted a .721 OPS in 56 games in 2019, and .500 in 33 games in '20. Straw, who has one career Major League homer, will never be the offensive player that Springer is, but he has a chance to be a better center fielder. Straw has better acceleration, better top speed, takes better routes and has a stronger arm. There’s still a learning curve for Straw, but his time is now.
Who is the closer heading into 2021?
That’s to be determined. Pressly closed last year after Roberto Osuna sustained a season-ending right arm injury early in the season (Osuna was not re-signed). The club pursued free agent Trevor Rosenthal the entire offseason, but he struck a one-year deal with the rival A's on Thursday, according to a source. The signing of veteran Steve Cishek to a Minor League deal gives the Astros someone with lots of closing experience, though he hasn’t been a full-time closer since 2016. Some of last year’s breakout pitchers -- Enoli Paredes, Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor -- could handle the closer’s job.
Do the Astros have enough pitching depth?
That’s what we’ll find out in the regular season. Houston addressed its bullpen depth by signing Stanek, Báez and Cishek, and veteran Smith returns as well after missing all of 2020. The rotation is set, but there’s not much depth beyond Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. That could be a concern considering pitchers will be asked to throw a full season’s workload after last season’s abbreviated 60-game season. Some of the Astros’ young prospects could be pressed into duty much like what happened last year with Javier, Paredes, Taylor and Andre Scrubb.
What’s story with designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, and when will he be back?
After Alvarez -- the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner -- underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees in August, the expectation was he would be ready to start Spring Training fully healthy. Alvarez, who had a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee repaired and a routine cleanup in his left knee, has posted some videos on his Instagram showing him running on a treadmill late last year, and he is expected to be full-go as camp begins.
Other players heading into camp with injuries are pitchers Austin Pruitt and Josh James. Pruitt (hairline fracture in right elbow) and James (labral tear in his left hip) are coming off surgery and will likely start the year on the injured list. Justin Verlander, who underwent Tommy John surgery late last year, is expected to miss the entire season.
Who are some prospects to keep an eye on in camp?
Forrest Whitley, the only Astros prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 (No. 41), will be back at big league camp for the third year. He likely would have been up in the Majors last season had he not been bothered by a nagging injury. There aren’t a lot of opportunities right away on what remains a stacked Major League roster, but several pitchers on the team’s Top 30 Prospects list will get their first look in big league camp: right-handers Hunter Brown (No. 6), Alex Santos (No. 7), Jairo Solis (No. 8), Shawn Dubin (No. 15), Brett Conine (No. 22) and Austin Hansen (No. 27). In addition to Whitley, Dubin, Conine, Solis and Hansen have a shot at factoring into 2021 plans at some point.
As far as position players, outfielder Chas McCormick (No. 21) has a real shot to win an Opening Day roster spot as a backup outfielder. Korey Lee (No. 5), the team’s top-ranked catching prospect, will get his first look in Major League camp along with outfielders Colin Barber (No. 9), Jake Meyers, whose defense is rated highly, and Zach Daniels (No. 20), who bursts with athleticism and power. Cuban outfielder Pedro Leon, who signed for $4 million on Jan. 15, could be a fast mover to the big leagues and will draw a lot of attention from the big-league staff this spring.
When is the first Spring Training game?
The Astros will open Grapefruit League play Feb. 28 against the Marlins at 12:05 p.m. CT in Jupiter, Fla. Houston will only play four teams this spring -- the Marlins, Cardinals, Nationals and Mets -- all National League clubs. This is the Astros’ fifth Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Fla.
How can I watch/listen/follow Spring Training games?
All Astros games in Grapefruit League play can be heard on 790 AM in Houston, and select games will be televised on AT&T SportsNet (schedule TBA).
When is Opening Day and who is the opponent?
Houston will open the 2021 season at 9:07 p.m. CT on April 1 in Oakland against the A’s. The Astros have won eight consecutive Opening Day games, every year since the club moved to the AL beginning with the 2013 season. Houston will host the A’s at 7:10 p.m. CT on April 8 in its home opener at Minute Maid Park.
Are the Astros planning to sell tickets to regular-season games?
Yes, the Astros are planning to have fans return to Minute Maid Park in a limited capacity. The club is still finalizing protocols, but the club could have roughly one-fourth capacity at the 43,000-seat Minute Maid Park, meaning 10-12,000 fans per game to begin the season. Once tickets are available, season-ticket holders will get priority on purchases before single-game tickets are made available to the general public.