Talk about the fast track. While the winter dragged on with minimal rumor after minimal rumor (until mid-January), players will begin to hit the ground running and things will start moving quickly now. Spring training games begin next week. Breaking camp is about a month away and games for real begin in about five weeks.
All the waiting is over. Jeff Luhnow said he wanted to keep the roster at a minimum (about 60 players) in an effort to give players plenty of opportunity for ABs and IPs. Still, with a logjam caused by flexibility and versatility, it could get dicey. So, what are the Astros thinking? Let’s take a look at some key questions.
What is Houston thinking about first base?
- While it isn’t crystal clear, it’s obvious that the ball is in Jon Singleton‘s court. Chris Carter, Evan Gattis and Matt Dominguez will all get time at first base. Heck, just a season ago, Singleton was the third ranked prospect in the Astros’ system. Recently, Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch have indicated that both Gattis and Carter will get plenty of time at first, though Gattis will start the spring in left field. But — and it’s a huge “but” — the team seems to be worried about Gattis’ knee, so that could simply mean more DH than anything else.
- In reality, you can probably count the number of left field starts in 2015 for either Carter or Gattis on two hands.
- What are the Astros thinking? One of two things: 1. Let’s push Singleton to the brink. He’ll either answer the bell or collapse under the pressure. 2. We’re got three guys, two positions. One of them will be traded before opening day.
Houston, do we have a closer?
- Well, frankly, there are five. And, believe it or not, Chad Qualls is the most experienced closer on the roster. Yikes, you say! Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson and Josh Fields are also possibilities, along with the recently acquired Joe Thatcher. Others could step up, but don’t expect the cavalry to come running in from outside the organization. This is the cavalry! Hinch has indicated he won’t make his final choice until late in the spring, but also said he will not entertain a closer-by-committee designation.
- What are the Astros thinking? Obviously, they are comfortable with Qualls in the role. However, if Neshek or Gregerson (most likely Gregerson) stakes a claim, Houston will be in quite a nice neighborhood in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
And speaking of pitchers…
- What is Roberto Hernandez thinking? And, what are the Astros thinking about Roberto Hernandez? The 34-year-old stands to earn $2.3 million if he makes the team and hits all his incentives. Hernandez had other options, though perhaps some were only NRIs. Houston had other options, but obviously wanted to hedge its bets. Hernandez also hedged his bets, including an opt out five days before spring training ends.
- What is Hernandez thinking? The competition is not as solid as some fans and others believe.
- What is Houston thinking? Maybe Dan Straily, Brad Peacock, Alex White, Asher Wojciechowski, Jake Buchanan and Sam Deduno don’t have the goods. Of course, most of those guys have one thing that Hernandez does not: Options.
Ah, yes, the future…
- As much as you think it’s 2017 or 2018, or 2019, the future is…now. Once the season kicks off, Luhnow will need to go to work (if he hasn’t already) in earnest in getting his ducks in a row. Dallas Keuchel will be arb-eligible next winter. Collin McHugh becomes eligible after next season. In all, 19 players will be eligible for some level of arbitration after the 2017 season. Of course, not all of those will be in Houston, but the Keuchels, the McHughs, Gattises, Chris Carters et al will need to be addressed.
- What are the Astros thinking? It would be surprising if someone isn’t locked up this spring or at least by the summer. Leading candidates: Keuchel, George Springer, Gattis or Carter.
And there’s that lineup thing…
- With a plethora of options for 3-4-5, you have to wonder what Hinch is thinking for his opening day lineup. Virtually everyone in any prospective lineup you can write on your card can hit in the middle of the order. Springer, Gattis, Singleton, Carter, Valbuena, Jason Castro, Colby Rasmus. However, few — okay, a couple — can and should actually hit in the first two spots in the order.
- What is Hinch and Houston thinking? More like praying that neither Jose Altuve nor Jed Lowrie gets hurt.
Finally, there’s Jim Crane…
- Clearly, he has all his chips pushed in on The Luhnow Plan. With a contract extension late last year and a new manager in tow, Crane is drinking the Luhnow Koolaid. Rather than ask what is Crane thinking, it’s probably more important to ask this: If things go south, at what point does the Koolaid become bitter?
- What is Crane thinking? That 2015 is more than just a make or break year. If the team fails to win 81 games, the Crane-Luhnow relationship will — not may, will — begin to deteriorate. If Houston fails to win 81 games, next winter may be the coldest in Houston memory.