Alvarez not quite ready for return to the field

March 10th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- was hoping to play in a Grapefruit League game as early as Wednesday, but that return to the field has been delayed again while the designated hitter continues to nurse the sore left knee that has hampered him since last season.

Alvarez, according to manager Dusty Baker, isn't making enough progress to warrant inserting him into the lineup for Wednesday's game with the Nationals. This wasn't necessarily a setback, but if the criteria for playing includes showing considerable steps forward, Alvarez isn't there yet.

"He just hasn't progressed," Baker said. "To have a setback, you have to progress. He's not progressing as quickly as we want him to."

Opening Day is two weeks from Thursday. Alvarez has played in five games and has amassed 12 at-bats. He last played on March 1. If he returned Friday -- the Astros are off Thursday -- the 22-year-old DH will have been idle from game action for 11 days.

Still, the concern about his chances to be ready when the regular season begins appears minimal.

"We're just trying to prepare everybody else and then check to see how he is," Baker said. "It would be much better with Alvarez, but if it's not, we've got to adjust."

If Alvarez is not able to start the season on time, the Astros will likely have to use multiple players to fill the at-bats allotted to their DH. That could mean more plate appearances for outfielder Kyle Tucker, or it might create an opportunity for Abraham Toro to crack the 26-man roster.

"If he's available, he's an elite bat," general manager James Click said of Alvarez. "We will obviously have him in the lineup as much as we can. If he's not available, then we get the luxury of cycling other guys through there to show off some of the depth we have in the outfield now.

"I think we've seen some guys in the infield that give us interesting options there -- as we pace ourselves out over 162 and hopefully 180 games -- to get guys a day off where we can."

Alternative fan interaction
The Astros, like every Major League team, have taken steps to ensure they're still engaging with fans at Spring Training while being careful to heed warnings from the league and health experts with respect to the coronavirus.

In lieu of making direct contact with autograph-seekers at practices and games, Astros players are armed with an alternative -- pre-signed photo cards and baseballs that they can hand to fans at will.

Large stacks of autograph cards can be found at each player's locker as well as on the desk of Baker. They’re still working out the details on how to distribute the memorabilia, but in theory, players would have the option to hand out pre-signed items.

“We sign a bunch of baseballs almost daily,” Baker said. “With the autograph cards, we’re going to start signing them and handing them out. That makes people happy, but they still want you to sign balls, they still want you to sign pennants and hats. I’ll continue to sign, but I’m using my own pen. That was another edict that came down -- use your own pen.”

Altuve quietly preparing
A year ago, José Altuve arrived to Spring Training coming off the first major injury of his career -- a broken right kneecap that required surgery following the '18 postseason. This spring, Altuve is enjoying a more normal routine, with his prior injuries seemingly a thing of the past.

Other than a bout with an earlier illness that put him a little behind in terms of plate appearances, the second baseman hasn't had to deal with any new physical challenges as he prepares for 2020.

"When you're coming [back] from surgery, you're doing stuff you don't normally do," Altuve said. "You get out of your routine. That can affect your game. I don't even feel like I had surgery. My knee feels 100%. I'm able to do exercises I did before [the surgery]. That's a good sign for me that I'm ready to go play good baseball."

Up next
The Astros will host their neighbors, the Nationals, on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. ET at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. will make his third start of the spring after allowing two runs over two innings in his most recent outing on Friday vs. the Mets. The Nationals will counter with 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg.