The Houston Astros are just over 2 weeks away from the pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training and 3 weeks away from having all hands in camp. For the first time in a decade the team that heads to camp will do so off of a playoff appearance. The Astros appear to be in much better shape than the other recent versions of the team at this point in the process, but there are still open items, issues and challenges to be faced over the next two months leading into the 2016 season.
Five Spring Training Challenges
Challenge #1. Who wins the first base job out of spring training?
At first glance this does not seem like a real challenge. The GM has said that the first base job is Jon Singleton’s to lose. Singleton is the only player on the 40 man roster who has been a full-time first baseman and last season’s main 1B, Chris Carter, has already been sent packing. On top of this, Singleton has 3 years left on a pre-emptive $2 million/year contract, that was based on potential more than production, which makes him seemingly a non-candidate for a trade.
However, in 420 major league plate appearances, his .171 BA and 36% K rate make him more likely to replace the air conditioning units in Minute Maid Park than replace Chris Carter. There are many directions the Astros could choose to go based on what they see in Kissimmee. Singleton could earn the spot outright or even on a provisional basis. The Astros could let a tag team of Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena man the position. AAA MVP Matt Duffy could enter into the mix and hold down the spot. Or non-roster-invitee Tyler White, who has eaten up pitching at every level of the Astros system over the last 3 seasons, or NRI A.J. Reed, who was runner-up for Baseball America’s minor league player of the year could jump up and snatch the spot.
Challenge #2. Who grabs the last two rotation spots for the Astros?
Unlike previous seasons when the Astros front office held their collective noses in handing out the bottom of rotation spots, they have options, solid options for the BOR. The top three spots are Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers Jr., but after that things get interesting.
Newly acquired Doug Fister, no-hit meister Mike Fiers and incumbent starter Scott Feldman would appear to be vying for the last two spots in the rotation. Fister had pitched excellently in 2014, finishing 8th in the Cy Young voting, but faltered due to injury in 2015. Fiers was a solid starter in 2015 with a 3.69 ERA in 30 starts for the Brewers and the Astros, including that lightning strike no-hitter. Feldman had a decent 3.90 ERA for the Astros in 2015, but only made 18 starts due to injury.
A good guess is that Fister and Fiers would be the likely 4th and 5th starters with Feldman possibly being dangled as trade bait if he shows he is healed in Spring Training. Other pitchers, such as Brad Peacock, Joe Musgrove, and Asher Wojciechowski will likely be down in AAA waiting for the call.
Challenge #3. How to cover the catcher/backup catcher spots?
Hank (Zombie Dancer) Conger has taken his great camaraderie and noodle arm to Tampa. Jason Castro is being dissed in the arbitration game over $250K. Prospects like Carlos Perez and Jacob Nottingham have been moved onward in questionable trades. Max Stassi has never really put it together in the last couple years and Tyler Heinemann seems like a solid, but unspectacular option. Alfredo Gonzalez showed a good bat with little power as he rolled up three levels of the minors in 2015.
The best bet is that Castro will be the Astros starting catcher coming out spring training in 2016, but not likely to be so in 2017. Heinemann, Stassi or perhaps some other late pick up will be his backup and this is probably a rehearsal for taking over the top job in 2017, because if the Astros are balking at Castro’s $5.25 million salary demand this season, they will be sick over his free agent contract demands in 2017. Another thought would be to use Evan Gattis, who caught 135 games over 2 seasons with the Braves as the backup catcher in 2016.
Challenge #4. How to have a flexible bench?
The Astros rolled with 12 men on the pitching staff to start the 2015 season. Not counting the DH, this left 4 men on the bench for each game, which included the backup catcher who was rarely used in relief of the starting catcher. So, if Evan Gattis is not the backup catcher / DH, then the Astros have to back up the other eight spots in the field, cover lefty and righty pinch hit spots and also cover the need for speed with an occasional pinch runner from the other three roster spots.
Marwin Gonzalez fits the bill the best off the bench as he can back up all four infield spots, played a decent left field and can hit from both sides of the plate (when not hurt). After him, it gets touchy. Do they keep Jake Marisnick, who can play all 3 outfield positions, and can pinch run but had been a liability at the plate for about 75% of last season? Do they keep Preston Tucker, who is a power left-handed bat, but not good so far against lefty pitchers and barely adequate playing left field and nowhere else? Does a Matt Duffy make the team as a right-handed bat and infield backup? Maybe Nolan Fontana slides his way onto the bench? Not likely. But again, if the Astros used Gattis as the backup catcher they would have a lot more flexibility with the additional person on the bench. Maybe that is why Gattis lost the weight this off-season to take the strain off those knees.
Challenge #5. How to set the late inning roles in the bullpen?
While there has been speculation that Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles may vie or even share the closer’s role, the good money says that the Astros did not give up 5 pitchers including a former 1-1 draftee for a 7th or 8th inning set-up man.
The Astros could simply say that the 7th, 8th and 9th innings will be manned by Will Harris, Gregerson and Giles respectively. More likely they will announce Giles as the closer and mix and match in the 7th and 8th innings using Harris, Gregerson, Tony Sipp, Pat Neshek and Josh Fields based on matchups. It is true that Sipp is the only lefty in this top end group, but it is also true that Harris was devastating against lefties in 2015 (.129 BA / .455 OPS against).
- How do you see the Astros addressing these 5 challenges?
- Are there other challenges you think they will or should address?