The summer of 2019 was an unforgettable one for the Astros, who were roaring to a club-record 107 wins with one of the most potent offenses in baseball history. Houston already had a scary deep lineup before a burly Cuban slugger joined the party in June and rewrote the history books.
The impressive power display put on by designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, who bashed 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games en route to being a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year Award winner two years ago, left the Astros giddy about what could be next. After a lost 2020 in which Alvarez suffered a positive COVID-19 diagnosis and then had surgery on both knees after playing in only two games, the slugger is healthy and poised to return to his mashing ways.
“First off, I'm just really happy to be back here with the guys, and I'm super motivated to be back,” he said Saturday after a workout in West Palm Beach, Fla. “And I felt really good.”
The return of a healthy Alvarez should go a long way toward helping the Astros offense overcome the loss of George Springer, who signed with Toronto. Alvarez underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees last August and has recovered, though the team is easing him back into spring workouts. The surgery repaired a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee, and a routine cleanup was performed in his left knee, the team said.
Alvarez’s knees bothered him during the 2019 season, and that carried over into the spring of 2020. Not even a four-month shutdown because of the coronavirus was enough for the pain in his knees to subside, which is what led to the surgeries.
“Mentally, it was really tough because when I first got really ramped up to be ready for the team, I tested positive for COVID,” Alvarez said. “There was a lot of time where I wasn't physically able to do anything because I had to follow protocol. And I think when I was finally ready to get back and start training again, I tried to rush things a little bit too much, and maybe that was part of the reason why I had some difficulties with my knees, was just not being ready to train and then trying to get after it as quick as I could to be back with the team.”
The biggest dilemma surrounding Alvarez remains: Can he play the field? He started nine games in left field in ’19, including four when the Astros were playing in a National League park and couldn’t use the DH. With Alvarez's knees healthy, the Astros are hoping to try him out this spring at first base, like they did early in his Minor League career.
“If he’s able to move around like he did two years ago, he would be capable of playing first base,” Astros bench coach Joe Espada said. “It’s just a matter if the legs feel good enough to stop and push and take those tough angles that are required to play first base. If he’s healthy, we’re going to give it a shot and see how he looks. If he shows the movement and range he showed in 2018 when I first got here, I think he could be very capable of doing it.”
By playing Alvarez in the field from time to time, the Astros would have much more lineup flexibility. The one who would benefit the most would be 33-year-old outfielder Michael Brantley, who led the Astros last year with 26 starts at DH in 60 regular-season games. Any avenue to keep Alvarez’s potent bat in the lineup is worth exploring.
“Just to find any kind of way to get on the field is motivation enough for me,” Alvarez said. “Right now, I’m taking things slowly, but I know that as the days go on and I get more reps, get more comfortable, that I'm motivated to be out there.”