Notes: Alvarez set for debut; Báez TBD

March 13th, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Astros manager Dusty Baker said , the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year who missed all but two games last year, will make his Grapefruit League debut at designated hitter Sunday against the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

The Astros have been bringing along Alvarez slowly after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees last August, but they’ve said all along he will be ready for the start of the season. Alvarez slugged 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games in ‘19 en route to being named the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year.

Last year, Alvarez suffered a setback with a COVID-19 diagnosis and then had surgery on both knees after playing in only two games. The surgery repaired a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee and a routine cleanup was performed in his left knee.

Baker said he hopes third baseman Alex Bregman, who’s dealing with a sore left hamstring and has yet to see any Grapefruit League action this year, will get into a game next week. Bregman has been working out with the team on the field and taking batting practice, but the club is being extremely cautious.

No timetable for Báez return
Veteran right-hander , who signed a two-year deal to join the Astros after pitching the seven previous years with the Dodgers, remains in quarantine after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Baker said he reached out to Báez via telephone earlier this week but has yet to hear how he’s doing.

The extended absence for Báez, who has yet to pitch in a Grapefruit League game, could put his availability for the start of the season in question.

“He was a little behind when he left [for quarantine],” Baker said. “I hope he’s not further behind when he comes back.”

Last week, the Astros placed eight pitchers in quarantine, citing “health and safety protocols,” and all but Báez were cleared to return to the field Wednesday. Two of those pitchers -- Luis Garcia and Bryan Abreu -- will pitch in a “B” game against the Cardinals that’s scheduled for 9 a.m. CT Saturday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Báez, 33, appeared in 355 games in relief in seven years with the Dodgers, posting a 3.03 ERA with a 1.096 WHIP and 131 ERA+. He threw 17 innings in last year’s shortened season and gave up six earned runs with seven walks and 13 strikeouts (1.000 WHIP).

García opening eyes
The early returns on infielder Robel García have been strong as he pushes Abraham Toro for one of the final spots on the Astros’ roster this spring. García started at third base and walloped his first homer of Grapefruit League play in Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium.

García, claimed off waivers from the Angels on Feb. 27, is a switch-hitter who can play shortstop, second base and third base, in addition to left field. That kind of versatility, both at the plate and on the diamond, could go a long way toward García making the Opening Day roster. 

“The coaches have shown trust in me, the manager has shown trust in me to put me in games,” García said. “I’ve been working hard, and I feel good where I’m at right now.”

Baker said García may get some playing time in left field, as well as first base.

“So far, he’s played very well,” Baker said. “We’ve been trying to play catchup because he got here late and trying to give him equal opportunity that we’ve been giving some of the other guys, because we really don’t know what we had. The only way to assess somebody is play them. We’re playing everybody. He started out a little bit behind."

García, 27, has some Major League experience. In 2019, he appeared in 31 games over two brief stints for the Cubs, hitting .208/.275/.500 with five home runs, two doubles and two triples in 72 at-bats. That same season, he hit a career-high 27 home runs in the Minors between stops at Double-A Tennessee (22 games) and Triple A-Iowa (76 games) while posting a .954 combined OPS.

A native of the Dominican Republic, García signed with Cleveland in 2010, but he was released four years later. García then played in Italy before catching the eyes of the Cubs, who signed him.

“It was a difficult process, to be honest with you,” García said. “I always maintained my faith. I knew God had my back and was going to help me through a tough situation. I maintained my focus and was working all the time. I had the opportunity to go for a couple of years to Italy and I never lost focus of what I wanted to do. I kept working and thank God I had the opportunity to come back. I haven’t changed my mindset. I’m still focused on doing my job and taking advantage of this opportunity.”

Availability of starting pitchers a growing concern
The Astros were able to absorb the broken left ring finger suffered by left-handed starter Framber Valdez on March 2 when they signed free agent right-hander Jake Odorizzi a week later. He likely won't be ready for Opening Day because he’ll need more time to build up his pitch count.

Making matters worse for the Astros is that Cristian Javier, who’s projected to be in the rotation, hasn’t pitched since he threw two scoreless innings March 2. Garcia would likely be the next in line to grab a rotation spot if one becomes available, but he spent several days in quarantine and hasn’t thrown in a Grapefruit League game yet. Garcia will throw in a “B” game Saturday.

The other three projected starters -- Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy -- remain on schedule and have each made two starts this spring. Baker said pitching coach Brent Strom is “pulling his hair out every day with new rotations.”

“The fitness and training staff are doing the best they can to try to get guys ready,” Baker said. “Every year, when you start the season, invariably you’re going to have some guys that are more ready than others. We’ll see.”

Baker, meanwhile, didn’t have any further update on Valdez, whom the club has said for several days now has been seeking a second opinion on a course of treatment for his injury.

Roster moves
Right-handers Riley Ferrell and Alex Santos II have been reassigned to the Minor Leagues, while right-handers Forrest Whitley and Nivaldo Rodriguez were optioned to the Minors. All four players will continue to work out at the Astros' facility in West Palm Beach.