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Five Astros questions to answer in spring

@alysonfooter
February 23, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Game 1 of 33 in the Grapefruit League season is officially in the books, and what have we learned? Silly question. It's Feb. 23. There are 32 games to go. There have been exactly nine innings played.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Game 1 of 33 in the Grapefruit League season is officially in the books, and what have we learned?

Silly question. It's Feb. 23. There are 32 games to go. There have been exactly nine innings played.

What have we learned after the Astros' 7-6 loss to the Nationals? Absolutely nothing -- and that's perfectly OK.

There's plenty of time to figure out how this will all look in a month, and no matter how good a team is expected to be, there are always questions to be answered and interesting storylines to pay attention to.

The Astros have several. Among them:

1) Who separates himself as the deserving fifth starter? (Pro tip: Don't sleep on Brad Peacock)

When a pitcher throws 100 mph, which Josh James does regularly, he's going to attract attention. And James had a terrific debut season in '18, making him a prime candidate to rejoin the rotation this year.

But he has some competition -- left-hander Framber Valdez, and righty Peacock, the understated, jack-of-all-trades who has a much longer track record. And that may be the difference-maker.

Peacock has transitioned seamlessly from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation, proving invaluable in each role. In '18, he was among the better relievers in the American League, posting a 13.36 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. And he's only two years removed from providing key starting and relieving throughout the Astros' championship run.

Openings exist in the rotation this year, and that might spell a return for the quiet righty.

2) Aledmys Díaz -- how "super" is the utility?

The comparisons to Marwin Gonzalez have already begun, and Diaz can probably count on this continuing all season. The question now is whether Diaz can effectively play as many positions as Gonzalez, including some he's never before played at the big league level.

Diaz has played all over the diamond in his three years in the Majors, but he's lacking significant experience at a few of them. He's made only two appearances at second base, three in left field and none at first base. He's been mostly a shortstop, having played 269 games there. He also has 42 games of experience at third base.

How manager AJ Hinch uses Diaz is something to keep an eye on.

3) How does the bench shake out?

Jake Marisnick, Tony Kemp and Tyler White could all make the team, depending on how many pitchers the club decides to carry.

As things stand today, the Astros would go with 13 position players and 12 pitchers, and in that scenario, there's room for all three. Last year, White, the leading candidate to DH this season, posted an .822 OPS on two-strike counts, the best single-season mark in the Majors behind American League MVP Mookie Betts (.925).

And where would the Astros be without Marisnick's defense?

4) How's Carlos Correa's health?

On the one hand, Correa is 24, and presumably, players that age recover quickly.

On the other hand, Correa is 24, and that's a little on the young side to be dealing with back problems.

This will be a telling season for the shortstop, who missed around six weeks last year with lower back soreness (better known in Astros circles as "discomfort," wink wink). How he recovers from a mostly lost 2018 could have a direct impact on what looks to be another powerful lineup this season. So far, he looks and feels good.

5) How good are the "kids"?

Every spring, teams have a few prospects who have little to no shot to crack the Opening Day roster, but are almost guaranteed to get to the big leagues eventually.

The Astros, with one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, have an army of these types.

So keep an eye on right-handers Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin, outfielder Ronnie Dawson, first baseman Yordan Alvarez and outfielder Kyle Tucker, among others. Hinch said he is looking to see how the young pitchers respond to "uncomfortable" situations this spring -- coming in earlier in games and facing proven Major Leaguers for the first time, rather than simply finishing games and facing a lot of the Minor League talent they're accustomed to.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.