Astros players said Monday’s first full-squad workout of Spring Training had a much more positive vibe than it did a year ago, when the players were in the throes of the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal. The malaise of the ordeal carried throughout the spring and into the regular season, where Houston finished 29-31 before turning it on in the playoffs.
“I’ve never been more excited to show up to Spring Training in my career,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I feel something special in this clubhouse. The way everybody showed up today told me a lot about who put in the work to make sure they’re ready to compete and win another championship.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker, in his second season, talked with the team in two socially distanced groups outside of the clubhouse Monday morning. Because of COVID-19 and social distancing rules, pitchers and catchers are using the Major League clubhouse and position players are dressing in the Minor League clubhouse.
A handful of players have yet to report for various reasons, but being back on the field was all that mattered to the Astros.
“Smell the fresh-cut grass,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Just being back at Spring Training, everything just felt right. Super excited and looking forward to some new faces and then the same faces, which is great, too. I’m super happy how today went, and [it's] great to be back with the guys. There’s a good energy. I can’t wait.”
Bregman said last year’s 60-game season -- which came on the heels of a four-month shutdown because of the global pandemic -- didn’t even feel like a real season.
“That 162-game season, it feels just right,” he said. “When you play 60 games, looking back on it, it felt like we didn’t play last year. Being back and knowing we’re going to play 162 games, it’s exciting. I don’t think that anybody takes this game for granted, but a lot of us had time to look back and reflect, not only on last year and our whole career, but to be grateful to play the game we love and have played since we were little kids.”
Stubbs seeks versatility
The addition of veteran catcher Jason Castro, who will pair with Martín Maldonado to form one of the most experienced catching corps in the Major Leagues, means Garrett Stubbs will again have to battle his way onto the Major League roster. Stubbs made the Opening Day roster last season but played sparingly, making one start at catcher.
With that in mind, Stubbs is once again hoping this spring to be able to expand his job duties by playing some in the outfield and at second base. The increased versatility would make it easier for the Astros to keep a third catcher.
“I am still trying to fight for a spot, trying to be the third-string catcher as well as a utility guy,” Stubbs said. “I’m still fighting for that spot and still trying to learn from Castro and learn from Maldy so eventually I can be trusted to be one of the guys in the big leagues and be the No. 2 guy or No. 1 guy eventually.”
Last year, Stubbs had hoped to play some Spring Training games in left field and work out some at second base. A catcher moving to second? Craig Biggio made that transition for the Astros in the late 1980s and carved out a Hall of Fame career. For Stubbs, it’s simply about playing more.
“I’ve been talking to [bench coach] Joe [Espada] and trying to get more reps at second base and be able to at least be an option over there if something were to happen,” Stubbs said. “We’ve got a pretty good player playing second base [Jose Altuve], and hopefully he can play every day he possibly can, but just to be able to have that option and know there’s a guy on the bench who might be able to pinch-run and go to a different position. That’s kind of my goal this Spring Training, to make sure I can be an option around the whole field.”
Stubbs, who worked out in his native Southern California in the offseason, said he went on a dairy-free and gluten-free diet, “like a good Californian would.” He’s suffered from stomach issues in the past, and bloodwork revealed he should stay away from dairy and gluten.
“As far as my health goes, it’s about as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s been nice to finally [feel] good as a whole.”
Urquidy eyeing 200 innings
Right-hander Jose Urquidy reported to camp last week 15 pounds lighter, and it was noticeable. Urquidy, who missed the first month of last season with COVID-19 and then posted a 2.73 ERA in five starts, focused on eating healthy and gaining muscle with the hopes of throwing 200-plus innings this year.
“I focused a lot on my physical side this past offseason and losing a little bit of weight,” said Urquidy, who spent the offseason in his native Mexico. “I was in the gym a lot and focused on gaining muscle and trying to be healthy. I was active on social media with the gym activity.”
Reaching 200 innings would be a huge leap in workload for Urquidy, whose previous career high is the 154 combined innings he threw in the Minors and Majors in 2019. That included 10 innings in the playoffs, highlighted by five scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series in Washington.
Urquidy, 25, is a lock for the starting rotation, barring injuries. He threw only 29 2/3 innings for the Astros last season, so 200 innings would be a terrific step forward for him.
“I think I can do it,” he said. “I feel strong enough to do it, and I will work to be there and be healthy."