Hinch wants to challenge pitching prospects

Young arms will enter early in spring to face big league hitters

February 24th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When asked about what he wants to see from the plethora of young prospects this spring, Astros manager AJ Hinch recently said that in addition to helping them learn something while in big league camp, he wants to "make them uncomfortable."

Hinch isn't hoping the team's top pitching prospects -- Forrest Whitley, Corbin Martin, J.B. Bukauskas and Bryan Abreu -- feel unwelcome in the locker room or ill at ease when they're on the mound.

Rather, he simply wants these pitchers to go outside of their comfort zone and enter situations they have never been in before.

It'll be up to Hinch to put them in those situations. Then it's on the pitchers to make something out of it.

"The faster they get acclimated to what we expect here, the more likely they are to be an answer if we need someone to call up," Hinch said.

In that respect, expect to see several pitching prospects appear earlier in Spring Training games, when the opponent's more established hitters are still in the lineup.

"You stand up there and you're facing the likes of some names they've never faced before," Hinch said. "Bring them in the beginning of games as opposed to later, when they're facing guys that maybe they faced when they're in Double-A or the [Arizona] Fall League."

It's a seemingly sound strategy. Veteran players slowly build up throughout the spring, to the point where they'll have around 60 plate appearances when the exhibition season ends. Most veterans will have one or two at-bats to start out, and then add as the month progresses, aiming to being more acclimated to a regular routine come Opening Day.

But just as the more established players start taking up more at-bats, that's when the top prospects are sent to Minor League camp, to get ready for their seasons. Hence, if Hinch wants his prospects to face the better hitters in the Majors, he won't be able to wait until the later innings to do so.

"There's something about stepping in [the batter's box], and there's Paul Goldschmidt on the other side," Hinch said, using the new Cardinals first baseman as an example. "That's something they've never done before."

That's why Martin pitched the fourth and fifth innings against the Braves on Sunday, and why Whitley is slated to appear in Monday's game as soon as ace Justin Verlander exits.

All-Star Ozzie Albies, the first batter Martin faced in Sunday's 5-2 split-squad win, grounded to second. His second batter, Adam Duvall, flied out to right field.

"Those are the guys you want to face if you're going to be successful in the big leagues," Martin said. "Executing that fastball [to Albies], from a confidence standpoint, was good. Just to start with a big league hitter, to ground out to second, was kind of what got me going. Built my confidence up for the rest of the outing."

Whitley, the Astros' top prospect and No. 7 overall per MLB Pipeline and who could earn a callup this season, also embraces the opportunity to face higher-caliber hitting for however long his spring audition lasts.

In this case, the term "uncomfortable" can also mean "challenging."

"And that's great," Whitley said. "That's perfect. I'm a very adrenaline-based pitcher. Every time I get someone good in the box like that, I feel like I perform a little bit better. That's pretty exciting."