4 things we've learned in Astros camp
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The biggest news so far in Astros camp came in the first few days, when it was revealed pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. suffered an injury and slugger Yordan Alvarez wouldn’t swing a bat for a while because of a sore left hand. The lack of subsequent news has been a good thing for the Astros, who are still trying to sort out their roster composition with two weeks remaining in Florida.
Here are four observations about camp:
1. Don’t fret over the Korey Lee-Yainer Diaz competition
One of the big questions entering camp was who was going to be the backup catcher to veteran Martín Maldonado. That question still remains, but it’s probably not as important as it seems. It would be better for development for Lee and Diaz to be in Triple-A. One will likely begin in Triple-A, and the other will be on the Major League roster as a backup, but they could alternate as the season progresses based on workload and injuries.
In other words, Lee -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Astros' No. 7 prospect -- and Diaz (No. 2) will both get their shot at some point. Don’t rule out both making the roster on Opening Day with Michael Brantley likely on the injured list to start the season. The Astros could keep Diaz as a pinch-hit option, plus he can play first base. Lee is the better defender, and Diaz could benefit from more time learning from Maldonado, as well. Lee hit his second homer of the spring in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Marlins.
If the Astros hit the middle of the summer and aren’t getting enough production from either player, they could acquire a catcher from another club.
2. Justin Dirden making a push to make the big league club
With Brantley likely headed to the injured list, the Astros will need a fourth outfielder on March 30. They could start Chas McCormick in left, Jake Meyers in center and Kyle Tucker in right to start the season and carry Dirden, who’s been terrific this spring at the plate. He can also play all three outfield positions and runs really well. Dirden isn’t on the 40-man roster and has only 128 at-bats in Triple-A, so the best move for his development may be giving him a couple of months in Sugar Land.
Dirden, the Astros' No. 9 prospect, has been the standout Minor Leaguer in camp, but another young player who’s looked good is C.J. Stubbs, an athletic 6-foot-3, 207-pound catcher. He had six hits in 12 at-bats and has played some first base, as well. Stubbs and fellow non-roster invitees Cesar Salazar and Luke Berryhill represent an interesting next wave of Minor League catching depth after Lee and Diaz.
3. Starting pitching depth a concern
Remember how the Astros benefitted from their starting pitching excess in last year’s playoffs, using only four starters to get through 13 playoff games? The Astros had tons of days off in the postseason, which allowed them to stagger their starters between Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and McCullers, leaving José Urquidy and Luis Garcia to try to get innings in relief.
With Verlander having moved on and McCullers injured to start the year, the Astros have a clear-cut five-man rotation: Valdez, Javier, Urquidy, Garcia and top prospect Hunter Brown, who looked sharp in throwing three scoreless innings Sunday. After that, it’s Brandon Bielak, Bryan Garcia and prospects Shawn Dubin and Forrest Whitley, both of whom were optioned from camp Sunday. Another injury to the rotation may send the Astros in search of starting pitching depth.
4. Has any lefty reliever separated himself?
Astros manager Dusty Baker’s ongoing desire for a left-handed relief pitcher saw the Astros bring four to camp: Matt Gage, Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski are on the 40-man roster, and Austin Davis was brought in as a non-roster option. Mushinski and Taylor have been hurt, leaving Gage and Davis as healthy options. Davis has walked four and hit two batters in 3 2/3 innings in which he allowed three unearned runs; Gage has thrown three scoreless with two hits and one walk.
Davis and Gage could both have another four or so outings before camp breaks, so it’s a little early to handicap things at this point. If Mushinski, whose back flared up at the start of camp, can get back on the mound in the final two weeks, he could grab a spot and hope to build off last year’s solid, but brief, Major League debut.