Inbox: Who will be Astros' 5th starter? 26th man?

Beat reporter Brian McTaggart answers questions from fans

February 28th, 2020

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Astros aren’t sad. They’re not getting hit by pitches on purpose in Spring Training. And I have no idea when, or if, they are going to extend George Springer. Fortunately, there were plenty of other questions to be answered in this week’s Inbox.

Who seems more likely to make an impact at the big league level this season: Cristian Javier, Bryan Abreu or Forrest Whitley?
-- @SteveOteach97

Based on what happened last year -- and how he performed in his first outing of the spring -- Bryan Abreu has the best shot of those three to break camp with the big league club. The Astros still see him as a starter in the long run, but he pitched out of the bullpen with Houston last year and has some impressive swing-and-miss stuff. I see him spending most of 2020 in Houston. Cristian Javier has barely pitched above Double-A, which is not to say he won’t be in the big leagues this year, but he’s got work to do. Forrest Whitley is too much of a wild card at this point to say how he’ll impact the big league club. A suspension, some injuries and underperformance have derailed his progress the past two years and he appears to be a work in progress when it comes to mechanics. Still, he’s only 22 years old and has all the tools to put it together at any time.

I would like to hear any take you may have on Kyle Tucker. I haven't seen any hits yet, though I understand it's early. From what you've seen, what kind of year are you expecting from him?
-- @Winner_Of_Life4

It’s too early in the spring to get a read on outfielder Kyle Tucker, who appears to be battling with Josh Reddick for playing time in right field. Tucker was hitless in his first 10 at-bats in Grapefruit League play, so it’s still too early to jump to conclusions about that. He will have to put up numbers at some point in March, because he’s trying to unseat Reddick, who’s healthy after coming off left shoulder surgery. The Astros know what Reddick can do. Tucker needs to prove himself at the plate, and it begins now.

Who is your dark-horse pitcher and position player to make the roster for Opening Day?
-- @Rfader7Hall

As far as position players go, the final spot on the Opening Day roster will come down to either Garrett Stubbs or Myles Straw. Stubbs could be versatile as a third catcher, considering he can also play some left field in addition to shortstop -- and perhaps even second base. Straw brings speed to burn -- he had the fourth-highest sprint speed in the Majors last year -- and has shown some versatility, too, by taking up shortstop. He’ll also get some time at second base this spring. In the end, it will simply come down to what manager Dusty Baker covets more in his 26th man. My dark-horse pitcher to watch is Bryan Abreu.

With a strong spring, could Straw be in the running for the everyday guy in the outfield?
-- @Mountain_Drew88

Straw’s spot with the club would be as a backup outfielder/pinch-runner, serving in the same role that Jake Marisnick did the last few years before he was traded to the Mets. The starting outfield, barring injury, on most days will be Michael Brantley in left field, George Springer in center and either Reddick or Tucker in right. Straw could have a huge opportunity next year when it’s possible that the Astros could lose Brantley, Springer and Reddick in free agency. At this point, I’d say Brantley and Reddick are locks to not return in 2021.

Do you think the Astros will add an experienced catcher to back up "Machete"?
-- @longhorndave

Baker has made it clear Martin “Machete” Maldonado is the starter, but before they even signed him to return to Houston, the Astros signed Dustin Garneau to serve as his backup. I’d expect Maldonado to start three out of every five games or so, with Garneau getting the remainder of starts. As discussed above, there’s a chance the Astros could carry Stubbs as a third catcher. Houston took steps to address its lack of Minor League catching depth by drafting Korey Lee out of Stanford with the No. 32 overall pick and J.C. Stubbs (Garrett’s brother) out of USC in the 10th round of last year’s MLB Draft.

Lots of whispers about Josh James being a candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation. Do you think he has a greater value coming out of the 'pen? James, Pressly, and Osuna is a pretty gnarly 7, 8, 9 spread.
-- @htownknockdown

Well, it’s not exactly whispers. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom is on record saying James is a candidate for the fifth starter spot, along with newcomer Austin Pruitt and lefty Framber Valdez. James is making changes in his mechanics this year to become more “linear,” which means to move in a more direct line from the mound to the plate in his delivery. So far, the results have been good. James struck out three batters in two scoreless innings in his Grapefruit League debut on Friday against the Marlins. Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna are a top-notch back-end bullpen combo, though.

What are the Astros plans with Lance McCullers Jr. this year? Have him skip a few starts throughout the season by using a four-man rotation? Or maybe even a six-man rotation at one point in the season?
-- @Edward_Romero18

That remains to be seen. McCullers, who missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery, will be watched closely this year in terms of his workload, which is natural for someone coming off an injury. Former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said at the Winter Meetings that McCullers would be on a pitch limit of about 120 innings this year, but that could be different now. If the Astros limit his innings, as expected, they could choose to skip him a few times throughout the season so he’s prepared to pitch in the postseason. What we know for sure is McCullers will want to take the ball as much as he can. Remember, this is a guy who pitched with a torn UCL in the 2018 playoffs. How will the Astros balance his desire to pitch and compete with a potential cap on his workload?