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Notes: Springer, Valdez, starter debuts

@brianmctaggart
February 23, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the regular season gets underway, outfielder George Springer will remain in the leadoff spot.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the regular season gets underway, outfielder George Springer will remain in the leadoff spot.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

Baker said he plans to keep batting Springer leadoff, where he’s flourished for much of the past four seasons. Former Astros manager AJ Hinch moved Springer to the leadoff spot permanently on May 24, 2016, and the Astros took off that season, though they missed the playoffs for the only time in the past five seasons.

Springer ranks second in Astros history with 36 leadoff home runs (Craig Biggio has 53) and ranks fifth in American League history in career leadoff homers. Last year, he hit 12 leadoff homers, which was one shy of the MLB record of 13. Springer won his second AL Silver Slugger Award in 2019.

“I told Springer the other day that he reminded me of past leadoff hitters -- Bobby Bonds, Felipe Alou, Tommy Agee,” Baker said. “These guys were hitters and sluggers at the same time, and he can either get on base or it’s 1-0 our favor [after a home run]. This guy, he’s one of the best. You don’t win Silver [Sluggers] just by taking [pitches]. I love it, actually.”

Valdez starts strong in Grapefruit League
Left-hander Framber Valdez was the first of the Astros’ three candidates competing for the fifth spot in the rotation to get into a Grapefruit League game. He started Sunday and threw two scoreless innings in a 2-1 loss to the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

“I’m trying to work mentally on staying focused in the game and [going] pitch by pitch and being able to throw the ball where I want to throw it, but the main thing is staying focused in the game,” Valdez said through an interpreter.

Valdez, who’s competing with Austin Pruitt and Josh James to crack the rotation, struck out three batters and walked one while looking crisp. Throwing strikes will be the key for Valdez, who last year averaged 5.6 walks per nine innings. He was 4-7 with a 5.86 ERA in eight games (seven starts) in ’19.

“He had good command today,” Baker said. “He also had a good tempo. He got a little behind and then he backed off the mound and regrouped. That’s what he’s going to have to do. If he throws strikes, this guy has electric stuff.”

Regulars scheduled for debuts
Baker said José Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa will travel to Lakeland, Fla., for Monday’s game against the Tigers in what will be their first action of the spring. Most of the Astros regular players didn’t play against the Nationals on Saturday and Sunday.

It’s rare for veteran players to make long trips during Spring Training (Lakeland is 170 miles from West Palm Beach), but Baker said he wanted them to make one early in the Grapefruit League schedule to get it over with.

“They chose that one, and that’s the one I would have chosen if I would have been playing,” Baker said. “You can get it out the way and get the work in.”

Baker is looking forward to the trip, as well. He said his father was born and raised in Lakeland, and he’s hoping to seeing Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline and Willie Horton. Baker said he got in trouble in high school when he stenciled his bat with Kaline’s name.

“When I got to be with the Dodgers, and we were there and I was riding the stationary bike and saw Al Kaline come in, I was like, 'Mr. Kaline!’” Baker said. “He made a beeline to me and he said, ‘Man, I really like every time you’re on TV and I watch you play.’ That was one of the highlights when you see your hero and he’s been watching you, too. That was big. I hope to see Mr. Kaline.”

Baker, Zimmerman catch up
Because Sunday’s game was considered a home game for the Nationals, the club trotted out the World Series trophy. Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been with the Nats since they moved from Montreal in 2005, hoisted the trophy in the air before crossing the field to share a hug with Baker, who managed the Nats in 2017-18.

“Zim is a quality man,” Baker said. “That’s one of the top guys I’ve been on team with. I know [former Nats managers] Frank Robinson loved him, [like] Matt Williams, Davey Johnson, everybody that’s ever had Zim. I was excited to see him. I said, ‘Hey, let’s go have a glass of wine at some point in time away from the ballpark.’ We’ll try to make that happen. He’s had a heck of a career, and I’m glad he’s going to play at least one more year.”

Up next
With Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel in the lineup, the Astros will travel to Lakeland, Fla., to take on the Tigers at 12:05 p.m. CT on Monday. Right-handed pitching prospect Bryan Abreu will start for the Astros, facing Detroit's Matthew Boyd. Listen to the action live on Gameday Audio.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.