WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- On a day when most of the regulars were given a game off, outfielder Kyle Tucker received a start at first base Wednesday against the Nationals. This isn't going to turn into a permanent assignment; clearly, no one's unseating Yuli Gurriel. Tucker is still very much competing with Josh Reddick for playing time in right field, and he could be in the mix as well for at-bats at designated hitter if Yordan Alvarez's knee problems persist.
The thought process is simple, and not uncommon for this time of year. It's good to expose players to more than one position, just in case. There isn't a player in history who hurt his standing on his club with too much versatility.
"I asked him how much first base had he played," manager Dusty Baker said. "I guess he played some last year. You want to have as many interchangeable parts as possible. We've got to get Yuli some [time] at third base -- he's been working out there. You don't want it to be the championship season when you get out there for the first time. We're just trying to cover ourselves the best we can."
The ball found Tucker plenty during the Astros' 6-2 loss to the Nationals. Most notably, he snared a sharp grounder from Juan Soto in the second inning and creatively avoided a full-body collision with Lance McCullers Jr., who was sprinting to cover the bag. Tucker softened the impact by hugging the pitcher. (For those keeping score at home, McCullers returned the hug.)
“I didn't want to hit him or have him hit me too hard, so we just kind of grabbed each other,” Tucker said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, hey, Lance.’"
Tucker also logged the Astros' first hit of the game, a base hit to left against the shift, in the fifth inning that broke up Stephen Strasburg's perfect game. After starting the spring 0-for-16, Tucker has gone 8-for-13.
“At the beginning, it's just a little weird. You haven't faced a live pitcher in three or four months,” Tucker said. “Then you come to camp and guys are throwing 97 [mph] at you with multiple pitches. It's a little weird at first. Right now, I feel totally normal in the box. It's going pretty well.”
Earlier Wednesday morning, the Astros sent three pitchers and three position players to Minor League camp.
Right-handers Brandon Bielak, Ralph Garza and Andre Scrubb, infielder Osvaldo Duarte, catcher Lorenzo Quintana and outfielder Stephen Wrenn were all reassigned to Minor League camp. There are now 42 players remaining in Major League camp -- 19 pitchers and 23 position players.
Several internal rotation options are under evaluation as the Astros try to figure out how to replace Justin Verlander, whose mild right lat strain will prevent him from starting the season on time. But are there other options from the outside that might make sense?
Prying a pitcher from another organization is never easy. For the Astros, whose thin farm system provides limited trade chips, the challenge is even greater.
If they were to explore outside options, where might they look?
The Reds, whose offseason moves hint that they could be a force in the National League Central, have a modest surplus of pitching. But their presumed odd man out, Tyler Mahle, would come at a high price.
The White Sox have upward of eight starters being considered for their final five, but at least three are still rehabbing from injuries, and any setbacks could take some of the shine off their apparent enviable depth.
The Tigers could be willing to part with veteran Jordan Zimmermann, but with a price tag of $25 million (the final year of his contract) and an injury history -- he pitched only 112 innings in 2019 -- it would make little sense for the Astros to take on that salary, and that risk.
The Twins have plenty of starting pitching, but only one could conceivably leave the system at this point -- Jhoulys Chacín. He fits the description of what the Astros need -- a veteran arm with some experience and mileage -- but he's also an injury risk.
The Astros will take Thursday off before reconvening Friday for a road game with the Cardinals in Jupiter. Most of the Opening Day starting lineup is expected to play, and the projected No. 3 or No. 4 starter, Jose Urquidy, will make his fourth appearance of the spring and his second start. The game is slated to begin at 1:05 p.m. ET and will be aired on MLB.TV and MLB Network.