Notes: Yordan returns; McCullers cruises

March 14th, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Astros slugger proclaimed himself completely healthy and ready to push forward after making his Grapefruit League debut in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Alvarez, who underwent double knee surgery in August, started at designated hitter and went 0-for-3, seeing eight pitches.

Alvarez, appearing in a game for the first time since Aug. 15, has been eased into action this spring after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees. Alvarez looped a fly ball to center in the second off Stephen Strasburg, flied out to left in the fourth against Brad Hand and grounded out in the sixth against Sam Clay.

“I feel really good,” Alvarez said. “It’s not even a part of my thought process. I’m thinking in my mind, the injury is in the past and something I don’t have to worry about. I feel really good putting in the work and recuperating.”

Alvarez slugged 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games in 2019 en route to being named a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year Award winner. He was held to only two games last year, so his return would be a huge boost to an Astros lineup that lost George Springer to the Blue Jays.

“I just want to take advantage of any opportunity to get as many at-bats as I can the rest of the spring,” Alvarez said. “Supposedly, I’m playing tomorrow. They wanted to see how today went. Everybody can see things went well today, so I should be in there again tomorrow.”

Astros manager Dusty Baker said Alvarez will take Monday off, however, and will play Tuesday and Wednesday. Baker also sounded hesitant to put Alvarez in the outfield at any point this spring.

“I can’t get on board with that yet until we get clearance from the trainers,” Baker said. “It would help our team and flexibility if he could play the outfield and first base. In the past, whenever he played the outfield, we had to sit him down for a couple of days. Maybe his new knees after he got them operated on, that might permit him. As of now, we have to treat him with kid gloves and make sure he goes deep into the season.”

Alvarez said he’d be willing to play some outfield and first base later in camp.

“I haven’t been working so much on defense,” he said. “The first thing on everybody’s agenda was that I was feeling good and the knees were good. We’re past that step now, and now’s an opportunity to focus more on the defensive side, at first base as well as in the outfield.”

Last year, Alvarez suffered a setback with a COVID-19 diagnosis, then after playing in two games had surgery to repair a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee, with a routine cleanup performed in his left knee.

“He’s an absolute game-changer,” Astros pitcher said.

McCullers sharp against the Nationals
In his biggest test of the spring, McCullers was thoroughly pleased with his 54-pitch effort in Sunday’s win. McCullers struck out six batters in four scoreless innings, allowed three hits and no walks and was able to approach the outing like a regular-season start.

McCullers had a pregame meeting with catcher Martín Maldonado like he does in the regular season to plan how to attack hitters, and he was able to face four hitters -- Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber -- twice each.

“I was able to settle in and mix my pitches, having to think I’m going to face these guys probably two times,” he said. “I wasn’t setting up guys, but not exposing them too early -- that whole little chess game you have to play.”

McCullers mixed his pitches more than in any other outing this spring, saying he wasn’t pleased with his cutter just yet. He was happy with his two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball. The goal, he says, is to have at least three of the four pitches working at any time.

“Today really felt good,” McCullers said. “I’d like to get that cutter going. Still something that’s not all the way there yet, but I have a couple of more starts and a couple of more bullpens to get it right.”

Altuve a candidate to bat leadoff this year
After saying last week that shortstop Carlos Correa and center fielder Myles Straw were the leading candidates to bat leadoff to start the season – a spot occupied by Springer the previous five seasons – Baker added to that list Sunday.

Altuve has the most experience batting leadoff of any player on the Astros roster, with 380 career starts in the leadoff spot, his most outside of batting second (530 times). He has hit third 333 times and has fewer than three dozen career starts at any other spot. Altuve went 0-for-4 from the leadoff spot Sunday.

“That’s something I would consider and something he would consider, too,” Baker said. “Like I said, I’m experimenting with different lineups to see which ones, you know, suits us best as a team and as a unit. Definitely, it’d have to be a consideration of a conversation with Altuve, which I’ve had already. We’re just trying it.”

Springer moved into the leadoff role full-time on March 24, 2016, when former manager A.J. Hinch switched Springer and Altuve, who had been leading off for the first 45 games of that season. Correa has never hit leadoff in his career but would bring a power element to the top of the order that Springer possessed.

Straw doesn’t hit for power but is one of the fastest players in the game, though he’d have to prove he can get on base enough for the job. Altuve, coming off the worst season of his career, could provide both speed and power at the top of the batting order.

Worth noting
• The Astros made a second round of roster cuts Sunday, reassigning outfielders Colin Barber (Houston's No. 8 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and Zach Daniels (No. 13), left-handed pitcher Ryan Hartman, right-handed pitcher Blair Henley (No. 27), infielder Grae Kessinger (No. 16) and catcher Lorenzo Quintana to the Minor Leagues.

• Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Reggie Jackson were at Sunday’s game in a suite above the third-base line. Bagwell and Biggio played their entire careers in Houston and are the only members of the Hall of Fame with an Astros logo on their plaques in Cooperstown. Jackson is a close friend of Astros owner Jim Crane.

• Three of the eight pitchers who were in quarantine last week for possible coronavirus exposure returned to the mound and threw an inning Sunday -- Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes and Hector Velázquez. Javier, who’s expected to be in the Astros’ rotation to start the year, said he feels he has enough time to get extended for the start of the regular season. Javier threw for the first time since March 3 and Paredes since March 4, and Velázquez made his Grapefruit League debut.