Here are 5 Astros storylines for 2020 season

June 30th, 2020

HOUSTON -- Instead of the hot Florida sun, the Astros will be working out in the air-conditioned comfort of Minute Maid Park. The workouts will be staggered, and there will be no fans watching their drills. Players and staff will be following stringent health protocols set out by Major League Baseball to help avoid contracting the coronavirus, which shut down the sport in March.

Things will look much different when the Astros get back on the field Friday for their first Summer Camp workout, but some of the same questions remain from March. The Astros will have three weeks to prepare for the start of a 60-game season on July 23 or 24, and they will be among baseball’s most stacked teams heading in the truncated ’20 season.

Let’s revisit some big storylines heading into Summer Camp:

1. Will Verlander be healthy for the start of the season?
The postponement of the season was a silver lining for the 2019 American League Cy Young Award winner. underwent surgery on his groin March 17, and he was expected to miss up to eight weeks into the season. It’s expected Verlander, who recently posted an Instagram message of himself throwing off the mound, will be ready when the season starts in three weeks.

Verlander was nagged by injuries all spring. He began noticing discomfort in his groin while he was working out in the offseason. When he got to camp in February and started throwing off the mound with high effort, it started bothering him more. Surgery was discussed at the time, but Verlander tried to work through it as Grapefruit League games started.

As a result, Verlander said he ended up straining his lat muscle because he was changing his mechanics to compensate for his groin injury. While rehabbing his groin, he felt it pop, which concerned him enough to talk to the training staff again and seek a second opinion, which meant a visit to Philadelphia to see Dr. William Meyers, who performed the groin surgery.

Last year, Verlander went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and a career-high 300 strikeouts in 223 innings while leading the Majors in opponents’ batting average (.172) and WHIP (0.80).

2. Baker faces another hurdle
What a year it’s been for Dusty Baker. He was content with life away from baseball at his home in the Sacramento, Calif., area when 2020 arrived, and he couldn’t have dreamed he’d get another shot at managing. The abrupt dismissal of manager AJ Hinch in January in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal led to the Astros’ hiring of the respected Baker to lead the club through one of its most tumultuous stretches.

Baker was just learning his staff and players when the coronavirus pandemic shut down camp in mid-March, sending Baker back to California. He worked out daily, tended to his vineyard and waited for his return to managing (he last managed the Nationals in 2017). Now that he’s back at work, Baker will manage in a landscape baseball hasn’t seen before while chasing his elusive championship.

Baker has been through work stoppages as a player and was in the Cubs dugout when fan Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball at Wrigley Field, potentially changing the momentum of the 2003 National League Championship Series. But this will be different. The well-being of players, coaches and everyone in the game will be at stake. Baker himself, at 71, is in a vulnerable group for the virus, which adds another level of concern to his return to the dugout.

3. The return of McCullers
It has been nearly two years since started a regular-season game. That came on Aug. 4, 2018, against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, where he injured his elbow at the same site where he had started Game 7 of the World Series 10 months earlier. He returned to pitch in relief at the end of ’18 but wound up having Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire ’19 season.

McCullers came to camp healthy and ready to rejoin the rotation, and he made three Grapefruit League starts before spring camp was shut down. There were questions about how much of a workload McCullers could endure this season, considering he lost the entire season last year, but those concerns are out the window now.

Even if he makes 13 starts and averages seven innings per start, he’d still finish under 100 innings in the regular season, which is a workload he should be able to handle with ease and still have plenty left in the tank for the playoffs. McCullers has ace stuff -- he went 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA in his first 15 starts in ’17 and made the All-Star team -- but injuries have derailed him. If any pitcher was built for a 60-game sprint, it’s McCullers.

4. Where will the race for the fifth starter pick up?
Spring camp began with a rotation featuring Verlander and at the top with McCullers set to return. , a rookie who burst onto the scene last year, was considered the No. 4 starter, with , and locked in a battle for the fifth spot.

As camp progressed, rookie emerged as a legitimate candidate for the fifth spot as well, though James appeared to be the front-runner with a strong camp. Veteran right-hander had been removed from the starter conversation because he was slow to begin his throwing program after dealing with a neck/shoulder issue late last year and into the offseason. Will the layoff put him back in the starter mix?

5. How is Alvarez's knee?
One of the biggest storylines that had just started to emerge from camp before it was shut down in mid-March was about the ailing left knee of , the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year. He played in only five Grapefruit League games and had only 12 at-bats because his of the problem that has hampered him since last season.

You would expect a three-plus-month break could only benefit Alvarez physically and have him ready to go when the season resumes. Alvarez hit .313 with 27 homers and 78 RBIs in 87 games last year, setting a Major League record for OPS by a rookie in a season. His 1.067 OPS was the sixth-highest by a player 22 years old or younger since 1900.