As camp closes, Astros still have decisions to make

March 26th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros were set to board a charter flight to Houston following Sunday’s Grapefruit League finale, a 24-1 victory against the Cardinals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, bringing an end to the team’s stay in the Sunshine State but not the debate about the composition of the 26-man roster prior to Opening Day.

Much of the roster was set when the Astros arrived in Florida about six weeks ago. But injuries to All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve (fractured right thumb), the lingering recovery of outfielder Michael Brantley after his right shoulder surgery and the uncertainty over slugger Yordan Alvarez’s readiness for Opening Day have clouded the roster somewhat.

Astros manager Dusty Baker said Friday the final decisions won’t be made until later this week, perhaps after the team plays a pair of exhibition games against Triple-A Sugar Land -- on Monday in Sugar Land and Tuesday at Minute Maid Park. Houston plays host to the White Sox on Thursday to open its defense of its World Series championship.

“These last few decisions are tough, so sometimes they decide for you,” Baker said. “This is what you want. The way I look at it is you’re competing for a job. And if you can’t compete for a job where you are, how are you going to compete in September or in the playoffs? How are you going to handle that? That’s how I’ve always looked at it.”

Here's a look at the remaining roster decisions:

Backup catcher
Where it stands
: Yainer Diaz, the team’s No. 2-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, and Korey Lee (the club’s No. 7 prospect) came into camp battling for the backup spot behind veteran Martín Maldonado, and neither has separated himself. Lee needed to have a good spring at the plate and has done that, but Diaz’s ability to play first base could give him the leg up (Lee also saw time at first this spring, though).

There is still a chance both Diaz and Lee could make the Opening Day roster because of Brantley’s injury, with Diaz serving as a pinch-hit option late in games and perhaps playing some left. Lee is the superior defender, which is important considering Houston’s emphasis on controlling the running game.

“I’ve seen flashes of brilliance and I’ve seen flashes of still being young and rookies that need more seasoning sometimes,” Baker said. “Do we season them here, or do we season both of them here or is there enough playing time? Who needs to go back to [Triple-A] and play? … At least until we get Michael back, do we need some offense?”

Final position-player spots
Where it stands
: The Astros will likely begin the year with Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers and Alvarez as their outfielders, assuming Alvarez is ready after not getting into a Grapefruit League game until the final week of camp. Maldonado, first baseman José Abreu, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Jeremy Peña are the other roster locks, along with utility players David Hensley, Mauricio Dubón and either Diaz or Lee.

That’s 11 spots locked up, with two still up in the air from among outfielder Justin Dirden (non-roster), infielder Rylan Bannon, infielder/outfielder J.J. Matijevic, infielder Bligh Madris and a third catcher (Lee or Diaz). Outfielder Corey Julks (non-roster) is in the conversation, but the players who are on the 40-man roster would have the advantage -- considering Brantley will return sometime in April.

Of this group, Madris, Dirden and Matijevic are left-handed bats, which would fill a need off the bench. Madris and Matijevic are similar in that they both play first base, with Madris having experience at both corner outfield spots and Matijevic in left field. Bannon has played second quite a bit this spring, which is important considering Altuve’s injury.

“Me and [general manager] Dana [Brown] are kicking around, 'Are we strong enough on the infield or do we need some more offense?'” Baker said. “These final couple of spots are what’s taking so long because it really threw a wrench in our plans when Altuve went down.”

Final bullpen spots
Where it stands
: The Astros’ decision to option left-handed pitcher Matt Gage to Triple-A Sugar Land on Tuesday meant the club was going to carry eight right-handed relief pitchers. Six of those spots are set with Ryan Pressly, Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton, Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu and Héctor Neris. The last two spots will come down to either Ronel Blanco, Seth Martinez or Brandon Bielak. All three can throw multiple innings in relief.