5 Astros to keep an eye on this spring

February 24th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A new era in Astros baseball begins Saturday when Joe Espada, who spent the previous six seasons working as the bench coach under World Series-winning managers A.J. Hinch and Dusty Baker, fills out his first lineup card as a manager prior to the 5:05 p.m. CT game against the Nationals at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches.

"I’m looking forward to it,” Espada said. “I’m looking forward to the anthem and the whole entire stuff. I think it will be a first. It’s a moment I’ve been dreaming of for a very long time. I’m excited about it.”

Here are five Astros players to watch as Grapefruit League play begins:

3B Alex Bregman
Bregman was one of several Astros players who said they reported in the best shape of their life, but if you kept up with Bregman’s offseason workouts on social media then it’s easy to believe him. Bregman spent the offseason working out with some fellow Major Leaguers in Phoenix. Bregman’s swing work focused on his midsection, which he says is moving better and putting him in better position at contact, with hopes of driving the ball better. He’s a free agent at the end of this year and says he’s open to listening to what the Astros have to say. A big season at the plate would make him and the Astros very happy.

RHP Hunter Brown
Brown admitted fatigue may have gotten the best of him in his rookie season, which is understandable after he threw 162 2/3 innings, including the playoffs. That was 30 more than any season since he was drafted by Houston in 2019. He came to camp feeling like he was ready to handle a larger workload than he did last year, but knowing he still must compete for a spot in Houston’s rotation: “I don’t think anything’s given around here.” Brown is throwing a new slider, which he hopes gives him some velocity separation from his cutter, offering him another weapon.

INF/OF Trey Cabbage
The Astros acquired the left-handed-hitting Cabbage last month in a trade with the Angels, giving them another option to compete for a bench spot with Jon Singleton and Grae Kessinger, among others. Cabbage brings versatility and speed, with the Astros hoping he can tap into some of the power from the left side of the plate that he showed in the Minors last year. Cabbage hit .306/.379/.596 (.975 OPS) with 30 homers, 89 RBIs, 25 doubles and 32 stolen bases in 107 games with Triple-A Salt Lake in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, his versatility, power and left-handed bat could be a weapon off the bench.

RHP Rafael Montero
After appearing in a career-high 71 games in 2022, posting a 2.37 ERA and saving a career-high 14 games in helping the Astros win the World Series, Montero cashed in with a three-year, $34.5 million deal that was at the top of the market for non-closers. He wasn’t nearly as good last year (5.08 ERA in 68 games), but the Astros need him to return to '22 form. Houston signed All-Star closer Josh Hader, but didn’t re-sign free-agent relievers Héctor Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek, and lost Kendall Graveman to a season-ending injury, leaving some holes. Montero has some of the best command in baseball, and “when he’s right, he’s a front-line reliever, one of the best 25 relievers in the game,” pitching coach Bill Murphy said.

SS Jeremy Peña
Much has been made of the swing changes that Peña made in the offseason and he’ll have as many at-bats as needed in Spring Training to put himself in position for a solid season at the plate. Peña no longer wags the bat as he gets ready to hit. He instead rests the bat on his shoulder. His toe tap with his left foot has been replaced with what he calls more of a “hover.” The goal is to hit the ball in the air more after not hitting a home run in his final 351 plate appearances last year, including the postseason. That overshadowed a season in which he walked more and struck out fewer times.