WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Several players and staff members trickled in and out of the Astros’ Spring Training facility throughout Wednesday, one day ahead of pitchers and catchers hitting the field for the first time in 2020. No one was available to speak with reporters, but that will change on Thursday.
There’s no shortage of news at camp this year. The Astros have a new manager, Dusty Baker, and general manager, James Click, but the biggest story will be how the players address the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport and cost manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow their jobs.
We’ll leave that for Thursday. For now, here are five storylines you can expect from camp this year.
McCullers Jr. is eager and ready
Thursday will mark 464 days since Lance McCullers Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, so seeing him on the field in uniform and playing catch with his teammates will be a welcome sight. McCullers missed the entire 2019 season and has come to camp completely healthy. He’ll be inserted back into the rotation this year to help take up the innings lost by Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Yankees. McCullers, 26, went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 25 games (22 starts) in ’18 and is looking to start more than 22 games in a season for the first time in his career.
The Dusty effect
Spring Training will operate much the same way it did the last two years, with bench coach Joe Espada in charge of the schedule and routine. That leaves 70-year-old Dusty Baker, hired to replace Hinch, as the veteran, calming influence. Baker has managed a club during controversy before and wasn’t around during the sign-stealing saga, so he’ll be bringing a respected voice and fresh perspective in the middle of the controversy. We’ll soon find out why the Astros believe he is the perfect fit during such a difficult time.
The Astros have had a hard time finding consistent left-handed relief pitching the last few years, especially since Tony Sipp moved on following the 2018 season. Houston operated for much of last season -- and the entire playoffs -- sans a southpaw in the bullpen, which isn’t ideal. The new three-batter-minimum rule diminishes the role of the situational lefty, but Baker will want a left-handed option in relief. The Astros will have five lefty pitchers in camp -- Kent Emanuel, Ryan Hartman, Cionel Pérez, Framber Valdez and newcomer Blake Taylor. Of those, Emanuel and Taylor bring intrigue as far as lefties who could win Opening Day spots. Look for Emanuel to make a serious run at breaking camp with the big club after a solid ’19 in which he posted career lows in opponent batting average (.254) and WHIP (1.19) in Triple-A.
Two years ago at camp, outfielder George Springer began calling Kyle Tucker “Ted,” a nickname he earned because his swing had been compared with that of Ted Williams. The swings were similar, yes, but the results haven’t been. That being said, Tucker made strides last year and made the most of his September callup, earning a spot on the postseason roster by posting an .857 OPS and stealing five bases in 22 games, and he appeared to put the questions about his effort behind him. With the entire starting outfield facing free agency after this season, Tucker’s time is now.
Who’s on first?
Designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, worked on his mobility this winter with hopes of playing in the outfield more and not being limited to DH. The previous regime didn’t seem to like the idea of Alvarez getting playing time at first, though it would seem to make some sense. Having Alvarez play some first and more outfield would make it easier to keep his bat in the lineup during games in National League parks. Alvarez, who hit 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games last year, would typically sit out at least one game during a three-game series in an NL park. How much will Baker try him at other positions this spring?