Notes: Greinke, Abreu, James and more

February 19th, 2021

HOUSTON -- One pitcher who has yet to show up at Spring Training is veteran Zack Greinke, who last year waited until the mandatory report date to join his teammates in West Palm Beach, Fla. Greinke lives in the Orlando area, and last year he worked out at Rollins College before coming to camp about 10 days after most of the other pitchers and catchers had reported.

“He’ll be here in time,” manager Dusty Baker said Friday. “He’s always on time; just not early. We’ve had communication with him. He’s working out. This guy, he’ll always work out. He comes usually whenever the [mandatory] deadline is. We’ve come to expect that, and he knows what to do and what he can do.”

The mandatory report date this year is Feb. 27.

Greinke, 36, enters 2021 as baseball’s active leader in games started (459), and he is second to the injured Justin Verlander in innings pitched (2,939) and wins (208). Greinke and Verlander are the only active pitchers with at least 200 wins.

Greinke, who’s entering the final year of his contract in Houston, went 3-3 with a 4.03 ERA in 12 regular-season starts last year and allowed seven earned runs in 14 2/3 innings in three playoff starts.

Abreu back in the mix
Though he’s still considered one of the top prospects in the Astros' organization, right-hander Bryan Abreu took a step backward last year by showing up at Summer Camp “overweight and out of shape,” according to Baker. The manager said Friday that Abreu looked much better this spring and has put himself in a position to contend for a spot in the bullpen.

Abreu, ranked by MLB Pipeline as Houston’s No. 3 prospect last year, faced 20 batters in 3 1/3 innings in 2020 and allowed 10 of them to reach via seven walks, two hit-by-pitches and one base hit. That came on the heels of an impressive debut in 2019 in which he struck out 13 batters in 8 2/3 innings and earned a spot on the American League Championship Series roster.

Abreu’s lost 2020 season came when the Astros’ pitching depth was tested, and it allowed others in the organization, such as Enoli Paredes and Cristian Javier, to pass him by. He’ll be challenged to make the Opening Day roster after Houston bolstered its bullpen by signing Pedro Báez, Ryne Stanek and Steve Cishek and welcoming back Joe Smith, but Abreu should get another opportunity.

“He’s not forgotten,” Baker said of Abreu. “He had the lead on the other guys in the organization. And because he came back out of shape and wasn’t throwing very good, some of the guys he had the lead on passed him up. Some of those innings were supposed to be his last year down the stretch.

"It motivates you when you get passed up [by] some guys you had the lead on. We’ll see. We’re going to give him every opportunity to catch up and get that lead back, but it’s up to him.”

James progressing following surgery
The Astros will be without hard-throwing relief pitcher Josh James at the start of the regular season after he underwent surgery on Oct. 23 to repair a labral tear in his left hip, which had a recovery time of between six and eight months. Baker, when asked about James on Friday, said the right-hander likely won’t be placed on the 60-day injured list before the start of the season, which is an indication he’s expected to be ready to return by the end of May.

“We anticipate him being back prior to that,” Baker said.

That leaves Verlander, who underwent Tommy John surgery late last year, as the only player who could be moved to the 60-day IL prior to the start of the season to create an open spot on the 40-man roster. The Astros can’t place a player on the 60-day IL until they have a need for a 40-man roster spot.

Baker talked to James recently and reported that he’s “progressing well” from his surgery. James originally sustained an injury to his hip on Aug. 20 at Colorado and was placed on the injured list until Sept. 9. When he returned, he enjoyed his best stretch of 2020, allowing one earned run and striking out eight across six relief appearances through the end of the regular season.

The first half of the abbreviated 2020 season had been a struggle for James. He walked 11 and allowed seven runs across a pair of three-inning starts after beginning the year in the rotation. The Astros then sent him to the bullpen.

Overall, James posted a 7.27 ERA over 17 1/3 innings last year, the 27-year-old’s third season with Houston. He also appeared in relief in three postseason games, allowing four runs across four innings and getting tagged with two blown saves.

Call him Mr. Smith
As one of the elder statesmen of the Astros pitching staff, Smith is the leader of one of the team’s spring throwing groups. Among those in Smith’s group is Alex Santos, the 19-year-old who was drafted in the second round by Houston last year out of the Bronx, N.Y. Smith, the active leader in games pitched, turns 37 on Monday.

“[Santos] was 5 years old when I was in the big leagues,” Smith joked. “They’re trying to keep me young. It’s fun to be around them. They're so eager to learn, and they’ve got so much energy. It keeps you young, and it’s so much fun to watch. Everything I’ve heard about the group of guys that were in our bullpen last year, as young as they were, it was great. It was fun watching them on TV, and how much energy they had, and how much fun they were having.”

Smith opted to sit out last season to be with his mother, who was in her final stages of battling Huntington’s Disease. With his absence and injuries to veterans Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock, the Astros used 15 rookie pitchers last season, including 10 who made their Major League debuts. Smith looks forward to being able to help the youngsters more this year.

“A lot of these guys came up and had no fans in the stands and played in 60 games,” he said. “It’s way different when you start talking about August, September. You can get through 60 games. That 162 is a grinder, and there are little things you kind of have to do, or different ways to go about it, watching your throwing program and what you’re doing for your body. I don’t care how young you are, if you want to survive in this game, there are things you have to do that will carry you forward.”