It’s still unclear when, or if, Alvarez, the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner, will be cleared to play, which is why Baker talked with Brantley recently to gauge his interest in being the DH. The veteran outfielder started 25 games at DH last year, which ranked second on the club behind Alvarez.
Alvarez’s absence creates an opening for Tucker, who was expected to battle with veteran Josh Reddick for playing time in right field. Now, it appears Baker could have both Tucker and Reddick in the lineup every day, at least until Alvarez is activated off the injured list.
“There’s a spot open for Tucker without Alvarez,” Baker said. “You move up the line. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going to use him yet, but he will get into action. I talked to Michael Brantley. He hasn’t DHed much. I’m trying to decide after talking to Michael and talking to Tucker. It depends on who’s on the mound, what we need and who’s facing us. Tucker is going to get quite a bit of action, I think.”
Youngsters could land bullpen jobs
The Astros’ bullpen could be carrying some young and unproven arms when the season starts, because veteran relievers Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt are battling injuries, Joe Smith is on the restricted list, closer Roberto Osuna has yet to face batters and Framber Valdez is perhaps headed to the rotation.
It appears Cy Sneed and Bryan Abreu, Houston's No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- both of whom made their Major League debuts last year -- would be locks to make their first Opening Day roster. The Astros might carry 15 or 16 pitchers to start the year, perhaps opening up some opportunities for prospects like Cristian Javier (No. 6), Brandon Bielak (No. 12), Enoli Paredes (No. 13), Jojanse Torres (No. 19) or Brett Conine (No. 26).
“That’s why they’re here,” Baker said. “The kids aren’t here to paint. They’re here to say, ‘OK, who looks the best, who looks the most advanced, who could help us at some time?’ And when we were at Spring Training, we said, 'To win this thing, we’re going to need everybody.'”
Javier and Bielak are closer to the big leagues than Paredes, Torres and Conine, each of whom threw in Friday’s instrasquad game at Minute Maid Park. But an opportunity to face Major League hitters is a chance to impress the big league staff.
“I’m not afraid to give a kid a chance, especially if he looks like he can handle it mentally and physically,” Baker said. “I was young once a while ago, too. You never know. I tell these guys, especially the young guys, how many people who are 23, 24, 25 are about to reach their lifetime goals ever since they were a little kid? Don’t be afraid to grab hold and cross that threshold.”
Baker preparing for challenges
Even with nearly 3,500 games as a manager under his belt, including 1,863 wins, Baker said this might be his most challenging year yet. That stems, of course, from the coronavirus pandemic, which has shorted the regular season to 60 games and could cause some of his players to miss games. Juggling rosters while keeping players healthy for two months -- in addition to trying to win -- won’t be an easy task.
Baker, who took the job only a couple weeks before the start of Spring Training, was still in the process of learning his players and staff when the pandemic forced camp to be shut down in mid-March.
“It’s definitely going to be challenging, and I’m going to have to do my best job of managing so far, and even hope for a little luck and pull a few rabbits out of the hat,” Baker said. “Half the players, I’ve never seen play, especially some of the younger players. I’m going to depend on the organization, depend on my eyes and what I’ve seen so far without making snap judgments. We don’t have a whole bunch of time to judge the talent you have.”
A week from the regular season, Baker would typically be finalizing his roster and making his last preparations for Opening Day. This year, he said he wakes up and prays that everyone stays healthy and in shape. What’s more, the team hasn’t had as much time to do as many drills during Summer Camp as it would have during a six-week Spring Training.
“We’ve only had baserunning once,” Baker said. “We’ll probably run the bases [Saturday], but then you don’t want to have any soft-tissue injuries. I want to see who can steal. You don’t want to pull [hamstrings] trying to see who can steal. It's kind of a catch-22 situation. So far, so good.”
• Baker said reliever Ryan Pressly (right index finger blister) is scheduled to throw in Saturday's intrasquad game, but Peacock (right shoulder inflammation) isn’t ready to throw yet. And there’s still no word why Osuna hasn’t thrown, despite playing long toss regularly.
• Utility infielder Aledmys Díaz (shoulder) is set to play in Saturday’s intrasquad game and will travel with the club to Kansas City. Baker said the plan is to get him as much work as they can without taking away work from anybody else.
• After two weeks of Summer Camp, Reddick said he’s in favor of a shortened Spring Training: “It’s tiring, and then kind of boring a lot of times, because you’re stuck around doing not a whole lot. I prefer the quicker side of things. … The pitchers may need to build, whereas the hitters may not need that.”