4 key Spring Training takeaways for Astros

March 16th, 2020

HOUSTON -- The Astros got four weeks of work under their belts in Spring Training before the coronavirus pandemic forced the sports world to come to a halt. Most of the Astros’ players have traveled home while awaiting word on what comes next.

Major League Baseball announced last week it would postpone the start of the regular season, but the hiatus figures to be longer after the Centers for Disease Control recommended on Monday that no gatherings of 50 people or more should take place for eight weeks to slow the spread of the virus.

While baseball waits to find out what’s next, let’s take a look at three key things we learned about the Astros during their month-long stay in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Starting pitching questions
After losing Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole in the last two offseasons -- and despite adding Zack Greinke at the 2019 Trade Deadline -- the Astros’ lack of starting pitching depth is a concern. That became especially true when ace Justin Verlander experienced a lat strain on March 9, an injury that, at the time, put his status for Opening Day in doubt. Even now that Verlander has more time to heal with the start of the season being delayed, the Astros are relying on Lance McCullers Jr., who missed all of last year coming off Tommy John surgery, and José Urquidy, who burst on the scene in 2019 and capped his season with five scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series. Beyond that, the rest of the rotation has question marks. Can Josh James keep his mechanics in check? Will Austin Pruitt benefit from a move to Houston? Can Framber Valdéz throw strikes? If ever there was a time for their top prospect, pitcher Forrest Whitley, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect and No. 19 overall by MLB Pipeline, to get it together, this is it.

Straw dangerous weapon
Speedy outfielder Myles Straw is more than capable of assuming the role Jake Marisnick held the previous few seasons. Everybody knows Straw can run -- his sprint speed in 2019 was 30.1 feet per second, which was tied for fourth-highest in baseball -- but the 25-year-old was driving the ball better in the spring. He hit three homers, including an inside-the-park homer, and teammates lauded the way he was pulling the ball. Straw’s value is increased when you consider he started playing shortstop a year ago, and he was even in a game at second base this spring. The Astros could employ Straw as a dangerous weapon in multiple ways this season. Straw was 9-for-21 with three walks and seven runs scored (.429/.500/.857) in 11 Grapefruit League games.

Promising back end of bullpen
The Astros lost their best reliever from last season when Will Harris signed with the Nationals in the offseason. Yes, the same Will Harris who gave up a game-winning, seventh-inning homer to Washington’s Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series in 2019. Still, Harris was Houston’s most dependable and steady reliever, and his loss poked a huge hole in the bullpen. With Roberto Osuna returning as closer and Ryan Pressly’s knee issues behind him in a setup role, the Astros feel good about their back-end guys. Houston re-signed Joe Smith, as well, but didn’t add to the bullpen in the offseason. A slimmed down Chris Devenski had an excellent camp, and he had been sharpening his slider. If he returns to his 2017-18 form, that’s a big development for the Astros. Rookie Bryan Abreu had 13 strikeouts in eight scoreless innings and appears ready to compete in the big leagues on a consistent basis. He could be a weapon in the bullpen, too, if the Astros don’t use him as a starter.

Tucker pressing for playing time
Outfielder Kyle Tucker will play in 2020. After an 0-for-15 start at the plate, Tucker heated up in the Florida sun and began swinging the bat well. He clearly has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, and he performed well enough in limited action in 2019, as he earned a spot on the playoff roster. The Astros still have veteran outfielder Josh Reddick in right field in the final year of his four-year contract, so Tucker is going to have to outplay Reddick to get on the field consistently. Reddick hit a combined .209 in July and August last season (before hitting .339 in September) and was 1-for-20 at the plate in Grapefruit League play. Spring Training results don’t matter as much to a veteran like Reddick, but he will have to hit once the season starts or watch Tucker get most of the at-bats.