ROUND ROCK, Texas -- The Astros are no strangers to the Dell Diamond, but it's been a while since they visited the ballpark as the home team.That will change this year when the Round Rock Express takes the field as the Astros' Triple-A affiliate for the first time since the
ROUND ROCK, Texas -- The Astros are no strangers to the Dell Diamond, but it's been a while since they visited the ballpark as the home team.
That will change this year when the Round Rock Express takes the field as the Astros' Triple-A affiliate for the first time since the two were last partners in 2010. Though the renewed alliance was announced several months ago, it was celebrated in earnest on Tuesday during a sold-out luncheon that gave local fans a chance to officially welcome their parent club back into the fold. The luncheon was part of the Astros Caravan, which will make stops in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, as well as other locations in the Houston area.
"Sports is the great uniter. It brings people together," Astros president Reid Ryan said. "You see it when you win a championship -- when the Astros win a championship, when the Express win a championship. We're going to have good players here this year, and I'm looking forward to catching some ballgames here."
The Express will be celebrating its 20th season as a franchise in 2019. They were the Astros' Double-A club from 2000-04 before upgrading their facility and transitioning to a Triple-A team, serving as the Astros' affiliate at that level from '05-10. They then spent eight years as the Rangers' top affiliate before switching back to the Astros, whose ripe farm system should provide a compelling Triple-A team for several seasons to come.
The three players who participated in Tuesday's luncheon -- pitchers Chris Devenski and Josh James and outfielder Kyle Tucker -- won't all necessarily feature in Round Rock this season, and they're going to do all they can to make sure they don't. But odds are, at least one will likely spend some time at the Dell Diamond this upcoming season, depending on how the depth chart shakes out.
Tucker, a former No. 5 overall Draft pick who is the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB Pipeline, will attempt to crack a stacked outfield when he reports to Spring Training in another few weeks. But a crowded field became even more congested when the Astros signed free agent Michael Brantley to a two-year deal. Assuming Brantley stays healthy, he will likely absorb the majority of starts in left field.
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With George Springer in center field and Josh Reddick in right, it appears at this point that the only outfield jobs open are for backup positions.
Tucker, projected as a future star, will start the season playing every day somewhere -- perhaps Round Rock, or Houston, or elsewhere if president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow opts to trade his top prospect.
How is this all affecting Tucker's psyche heading into Spring Training? He says it isn't.
"I prepare pretty much the same," Tucker said during a question-and-answer session with Astros television broadcaster Todd Kalas, who emceed the luncheon. "I have to get ready for the season regardless. We have a great outfield right now. It's a good problem to have -- a lot of guys out there that can perform. It'll be an interesting Spring Training."
James will also be battling for a spot on the Astros' pitching staff when he reports to West Palm Beach, Fla., in February. The hard-throwing right-hander wowed fans as a rookie with a fastball that often exceeded 100 mph, touching 101.1 at its peak and tying Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani for the highest-velocity fastball thrown by a starting pitcher in 2018. (The Rays' Diego Castillo threw two pitches faster -- 101.3 and 101.9 mph -- but he served as an opener.)
James, who made three starts and three appearances out of the 'pen in a 23-inning regular-season audition in '18, is now tasked with putting together a full season, possibly as a starter in an Astros rotation that has several openings.
"I need to get better at putting guys away," James said. "I know in the Minors, my strikeouts were high, but big league hitters make adjustments. I'm just preparing myself to come in and immediately make an impact. I'm going to make that a priority."
The Astros, who have made three postseason appearances in the past four years and won the World Series in 2017, are one of the few teams picked by oddsmakers to exceed the 100-win plateau in the regular season and have a realistic shot at winning the World Series. Having had their season cut short by a Red Sox juggernaut in the American League Championship Series last fall, the club has enough incentive to extend their postseason presence by several more days in '19.
"You always have that bar in sight and you're always chasing it," Devenski said. "No matter what, we know what our goal is at the end of the year."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.