Bielak earns opening nod; Alvarez monitored
The chance to get back on the mound in a game couldn’t come fast enough for Astros right-hander Brandon Bielak, who worked this offseason to learn from his rough second half of 2020 and put himself in a spot to compete for a spot at the back of the Astros’ rotation. If nothing else, Bielak is likely to get some innings this year as Houston’s starting-pitching depth will be tested.
Bielak, 24, was one of 10 Astros pitchers pressed into Major League debuts in last year’s 60-game season, and he struggled after a strong start. He will start for the Astros in Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Marlins at 1:05 p.m. CT at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., looking to put 2020 behind him.
“I probably got away from myself a little bit as I am as a pitcher in using my repertoire as I know I can,” Bielak said. “So I kind of fell into some traps last year of getting fastball-heavy in certain counts. I think we'll make some improvements for this year.”
Bielak dazzled early, posting a 1.69 ERA and .552 opponents’ OPS during his first 21 1/3 innings, including three starts. It went downhill from there. The Padres ripped him for seven runs in 1 1/3 innings in his fourth start, which began a stretch during which he posted a 16.88 ERA and 1.503 opponents’ OPS in 10 2/3 innings in his final seven games (three starts).
“I had a good first half-year last year and then had my struggles, obviously,” Bielak said. “But I learned from it. I got with the coaches, I got with the catcher, and I was able to understand what I did wrong and what I needed to improve on over the offseason, so I'm looking forward to coming out here on Sunday and showing the improvements I've made.”
Bielak’s work was mostly with his mechanics, especially when throwing his slider. He said pitching coach Brent Strom emailed him in the offseason and complimented him for the way he handled last year’s second-half pains.
“And that made me feel good about myself, honestly,” Bielak said. “Because I probably never really struggled like that my entire career. So being able to talk to the guys on the team, and the coaches to understand how it is to struggle and handle it like a professional, I was pretty happy with the way I thought I handled it.”
Baker in no hurry to see Alvarez in field
More than anything, Astros manager Dusty Baker wants to make sure designated hitter Yordan Alvarez’s potent bat is in the Astros’ lineup daily. That’s why Baker sounded quite reluctant to make any commitments to play Alvarez in the outfield this season, saying Friday that it’s “very unlikely.” Alvarez had surgery on both of his knees last year.
Plagued by knee injuries in camp last year, Alvarez appeared in two regular-season games in 2020 before shutting it down. He underwent knee surgery in late August -- he had a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee repaired and a routine cleanup performed on his left knee.
The 23-year-old is in camp and healthy, though the Astros are bringing him along slowly. And that means Baker doesn’t have any immediate plans for Alvarez to play in the outfield. The Astros would have much more flexibility with their designated-hitter position if they could make Alvarez a proficient outfielder. Veteran outfielder Michael Brantley might stand to benefit the most if he could get a couple of weekly starts at DH, but that might be difficult considering Alvarez’s limitations.
“It’s shown in the past that whenever [Alvarez] plays in the outfield, he’s hurting for two or three days, you know what I mean?” Baker said. “Who knows? That’s very speculative as to how much he’s going to play or how he’s going to feel. We’re a long way from making that determination, I think. We’re just trying to get him on the field as the DH first.”
• Baker said veteran starter Zack Greinke has reported to camp and has begun the COVID-19 intake procedure. It’s the second year in a row Greinke has shown up to camp at or near the mandatory report date, which is about 10 days after most of the other pitchers reported.
• Baker is hopeful outfield prospect Pedro Leon will be in camp “in a couple of days.” Leon, who was signed by the Astros for $4 million out of Cuba last month, was delayed by visa issues.
• Third baseman Alex Bregman, who has been slowed by a sore right hamstring early in camp, hit on the field Friday for the second consecutive day. It’s unclear whether Bregman will play in Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener.