WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When Grapefruit League play begins Saturday -- the Astros face the Nationals at 5:05 p.m. CT -- all eyes will be on Houston’s younger players, some of whom are in Major League camp for the first time, and all of whom will be looking to impress new manager Dusty Baker.
That being said, this spring is a big one for several of the Astros’ veterans, as well as the youngsters. Everybody knows about Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, José Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, but here are some other players who might garner a closer look this spring:
OF Kyle Tucker
The Astros feel a lot better about Tucker heading into this season than they did last year. He had a terrific 2018 in Triple-A Fresno but struggled in his big-league debut (.141 average). After another solid Triple-A performance last year, he posted a .857 OPS with four homers and 11 RBIs in 22 games in Houston and found his way onto the postseason roster. Baker said this week Tucker would compete for time in right field with veteran Josh Reddick, who’s in the final year of his contract. Baker said the longer the competition goes, the more it favors Reddick, and the shorter it goes, it’s in Tucker’s favor. Needless to say, a quick start in Grapefruit League play could position Tucker nicely for the regular season.
Best-case scenario for 2020: Tucker puts up the kind of numbers he did in Triple-A and becomes the Astros' latest home-grown star.
RHP Lance McCullers Jr.
The Astros are treating Spring Training as McCullers' rehab outings following November 2018 Tommy John surgery. He’s completely healed and has been throwing for months, but the Grapefruit League will represent his first game action since the 2018 playoffs. With the rotation suffering a huge setback when Gerrit Cole left for the Yankees, a healthy and effective McCullers is tantamount to Houston’s success. What we don’t know yet is what, if any, kind of innings limit he will be on for 2020. Former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said at the Winter Meetings he expected to cap McCullers at 120 innings. Baker has simply said McCullers will be watched closely. It begins this spring.
Best-case scenario for 2020: A healthy McCullers makes 25 starts and pitches at the level he did in the first half of 2017.
RHP Forrest Whitley
It’s fair to say this is the biggest spring of Whitley's career. The Astros’ top prospect (No. 19 on MLB Pipeline 100) had a lost season in 2018 that included a 50-game suspension and last year had a 12.21 ERA in Triple-A before getting sent to Florida “reset’ his season. He came to camp 40 pounds heavier than two years ago to increase his durability and worked out all offseason in Arizona (following a second strong showing in the Arizona Fall League). The Astros will have opportunities for him to pitch in the big leagues this year if he can finally put it all together. He still has some of the best stuff in professional baseball, but this season will be about building confidence. A strong spring would go a long way in getting his season off on the right foot.
Best-case scenario for 2020: Whitley dominates at Triple-A and joins the Astros rotation by the All-Star break.
RHP Austin Pruitt
Pruitt, who came over in a trade with the Rays, could be pitching coach Brent Strom’s next reclamation project. Strom joked with GM James Click -- who also came from the Rays -- that the Rays pitching was so deep, the Astros were forced to take their leftovers. Pruitt will be competing with hard-throwing Josh James and lefty Framber Valdez for the final roster spot, but certainly could make an easy transition to the bullpen, where he’s been used the most in his parts of three seasons in the big leagues. Pruitt is a control pitcher with a high-spin rate curveball and hard slider, but might be around the plate too much. Expect the Astros to try to get Pruitt to use his exceptional control to pitch out of the zone in an effort to make hitters chase more.
Best-case scenario for 2020: Pruitt emerges as a starter, giving Baker more options for his rotation.
DH Yordan Alvarez
One of the low-key early developments of camp was that Alvarez is still dealing with the same knee issues that dogged him last year, when he won the American League Rookie of the Year by hitting 27 homers and driving in 78 runs in 87 games. Alvarez worked on his agility in the spring in an effort to play more outfield, but is that a priority with the club? Michael Brantley will get most of the left field reps and Josh Reddick, Myles Straw and Aledmys Díaz will play some there, too. Still, having Alvarez improve defensively could make Baker feel better about him in left, so other starters can get some time at DH or keep his bat in the lineup in Interleague action.
Best-case scenario for 2020: Alvarez gets more comfortable in the outfield while duplicating his eye-popping 2019 numbers over a full season.