3 Astros storylines to watch this spring

February 8th, 2023

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

Considering the Astros return most of their key players from their 2022 World Series championship club -- they lost American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in free agency and signed free-agent first baseman José Abreu -- there won’t be many position battles when camp opens next week in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Astros manager Dusty Baker says that each spring, he looks for one young player to emerge who wasn’t expected to do so. A year ago, who would have thought David Hensley would have started a game in the World Series and had two hits in the Fall Classic? What happens on the back fields at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in the spring certainly has an impact going forward.

With that in mind, here are three storylines to watch as the Astros get set to open camp:

1. Who will be the backup catcher?
The Astros flirted with adding a catcher to back up veteran starter Martín Maldonado this year, but they ultimately decided to let prospects Yainer Diaz and Korey Lee come to camp and compete for the backup job. It’s important to remember that whoever doesn’t make the roster on Opening Day will contribute in the big leagues at some point. It will be fluid.

Lee, the team’s No. 7-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, spent most of last season in Triple-A and slashed .238/.307/.483 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs in 104 games with Sugar Land, striking out 127 times in 446 plate appearances. He had some ups and downs mechanically at the plate but has an elite arm behind it, which is key considering the Astros’ emphasis on defense and run prevention with their catchers.

Diaz, the team’s No. 3-ranked prospect, is considered a better hitter, plus he can play first base. He posted an .898 OPS with 25 homers and 96 RBIs last season between Triple-A and Double-A Corpus Christi. If veteran left fielder Michael Brantley’s right shoulder isn’t healed enough for him to be on the Opening Day roster, both Lee and Diaz could make the club out of camp, with Diaz getting pinch-hit opportunities.

Which leads us to …

2. Will Brantley be ready for Opening Day?
Brantley, who underwent right shoulder surgery in August, said last week he remains hopeful that he will be ready for the March 30 opener against the White Sox. Still, any kind of setback could push his return schedule beyond Opening Day, creating an open roster spot on the bench.

Brantley underwent an arthroscopic labral repair on his right shoulder and hasn’t played since June. The Astros still signed him to a one-year deal in December despite some doubts if he would be ready for Opening Day. Houston can play Yordan Alvarez in left field, along with Jake Meyers or Chas McCormick, both of whom are center-field options as well.

Last year, Brantley hit .288 with 14 doubles, five homers, 26 RBIs and a .786 OPS in 64 games as the Astros’ primary starting left fielder and watched from the dugout as they won the World Series. He said coming back to Houston was always his first preference, and the Astros valued his experience, clubhouse presence and bat-to-ball skills.

3. How will the World Baseball Classic affect the pitchers going forward?
Houston has eight pitchers scheduled to participate in next month’s World Baseball Classic, which means they must be ready to throw in competitive games earlier than normal. That’s always a concern with pitchers in the WBC, but that’s especially true this year at Astros camp.

Astros pitchers have thrown 114 more innings, including the postseason, than any other team in baseball in the last two seasons, with several starters reaching career highs in innings pitched in 2022: Framber Valdez (226 1/3 combined regular season and postseason), Cristian Javier (161 1/3), Luis Garcia (163) and José Urquidy (167 1/3). And all four will compete in the WBC and then return to camp to prepare for the regular season.

Valdez and Javier will pitch for the Dominican Republic, Garcia for Venezuela and Urquidy for Mexico. The other four pitchers on WBC rosters are relievers: Ryan Pressly for Team USA and Héctor Neris, Rafael Montero and Bryan Abreu for the Dominican Republic.

The final rosters will be revealed at 5 p.m. CT on Thursday on MLB Network.