Astros 2016: Five challenges for spring training

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?


53 comments on “Astros 2016: Five challenges for spring training

  1. *Challenge #1. Who wins the first base job out of spring training? *

    It is not a matter of ‘winning’ the job. For Singleton it is a matter of not-losing it.

    For A.J. Reed it is a matter of being too young, too green, and too close to starting the clock. The chances of him making the team in ST – no matter what he does – are 1 in 1,000. Singleton would have to be injured or suspended.

    For Tyler White it is a matter of being considered too short. Body style is much more important than either OBP or BA to Jeff Luhnow. Ask Preston Tucker.

    For Luis Valbuena it is a matter of who on earth would play third if he shifts over to first. Lowrie is gone. Moran is not ready. Davis is not even on the radar. Margo is not viewed by anyone as best-used playing every day.

    So, barring an injury or suspension, first base will be given to Jon Singleton. He will not ‘win’ the position. He will get it by default.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. *Challenge #2. Who grabs the last two rotation spots for the Astros? *

    I agree. No way Jeff trades away good young talent for Fiers last year and spends $7M minimum for Fister this year and pushes either out of the rotation. Barring an injury in ST, Feldman is the odd-man out.


    • This is why the signing makes no sense to me.

      Fiers is the best of the three.

      Fister will get at least 7 mil, and Feldman gets I believe 8 mil this year. Of course we don’t know Feldman’s status yet, he was just recently cleared for “baseball activities,” and we aren’t even sure he will not open the season on the DL. In the world of rotations, I am guessing all 3 get at least 15 starts.


      • I am not going to anoint Fiers as the best of the 3 yet. Compared to last year, yes, but the 2011-2014 Fister was much better than Fiers. I want to see what Fister we are getting before I say Fiers is the best between him, Fister and Feldman.


      • i notice Fiers, Fister, and Feldman all start with the letter ‘F”. Let’s just hope we don’t wind up with nothing but a bunch of F-Bombs after Keuchel, McHugh, and McCullers!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. *Challenge #3. How to cover the catcher/backup catcher spots? *

    Gattis has to catch some this year, and have some success there, or he goes from 90% untradable to 100% untradable. Nevertheless, he is not a full-time – or even a back-up catcher – so the Astros have to either trade for Lucroy [giving up who knows what, mostly in the realm of top-tier pitching prospects] or let Castro have his contract year in an Astro uniform, and letting Dallas Keuchel decide which of the trio of Stassi, Heineman, and Alfredo Gonzales he would rather throw to when Castro is resting.


  4. *Challenge #4. How to have a flexible bench? *

    Replace the aluminum seating with molded plastic?

    Seriously, all signs point to Marisnick, Gonzales, Duffy [who can play both first and third, against tough lefties against whom neither Singleton nor Valbuena have a prayer of making contact] and the best veteran IF-OF that the F.O. can pick up off the waiver wire because it doesn’t want to start the clock on either White, Reed, or Kemp.


    • I wouldn’t be surprised to see White make an appearance in 2016, but I think both Reed and Kemp need more seasoning. Luhnow had no problem bringing up Correa and McCullers, but he will only do it for special players. As much as I like Reed he will not be the player Correa is now or in the future. Carlos is a once in a generation type player. Reed, while very skilled at hitting, is not that type player.


      • Tim assuming Reed keeps hitting the ball in Fresno, I’d be surprised if we did not see him at some point in 2016. No, he’ll never be the five tool guy that Correa already is, but he might end up being as good with the bat.


  5. *Challenge #5. How to set the late inning roles in the bullpen?*

    The official line will be that Hinch will have discretion to determine which one among the quartet of Harris, Neshek, Sipp, and Fields pitches the 7th and 8th innings, and which among the duo of Gregerson and Giles pitches the 9th, on an ad hoc basis, on the basis of what opposing batters they can expect to be facing in what innings. The reality will be determined by who has the most success in getting holds vs. blown holds and saves vs. blown saves in real games.

    Note: We are in serious trouble if Tony Sipp either regresses or goes on the DL. That would mean that Wandy would suddenly become our best – perhaps only – option as a lefty reliever.


  6. *Are there other challenges you think they will or should address?*

    The most important challenge I think the F.O. needs to address is developing a ‘minimum standards of acceptable performance’ time-line for the five most likely to struggle yet easily replaceable players on the team, who based on last year’s performance, based upon in-house options, and based on a realistic ‘who-is-and-who-is-not-part-of-the-Astros future’ analysis, I consider to be Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Jon Singleton, Colby Rasmus, and Carlos Gomez. Marisnick probably gets a pass from this F.O. based on what they see as potential not yet realized.

    Each player in that group should be held to a minimum standard of performance in four categories: BA, OBP, BARISP, and K/9. To maintain their positions, they should have to maintain at least 10% better than their performance for us last year. Any ten straight games under two or more of those minimum standards should result in at least temporary benching in favor of the young guys [White or Tucker for Gattis, Duffy for Valbuena, Reed for Singleton, Kemp for Rasmus, and Rasmus or Springer to center making room for Kemp [LF] or Kemmer [RF] to replace a non-producing Gomez.

    What the Astros cannot afford to do again this year is keep throwing guys like Gattis, Valbuena, a big first baseman (this one named Singleton), Rasmus, and Gomez out there, game after game, despite not getting substantially better offense from those premium positions than they gave us last year.


    • Mr. Bill, that sounds like a pretty good way to lose a clubhouse. Ten games is a short slump in the grand scheme of things, especially for a couple of veteran starters in the outfield when you’re prepared to waive the same rules for a guy that regularly has not hit for months at a time.


      • The ‘minimum standards’ proposal is provocative, for certain. But somehow goals need to be set for the guys who under-performed last year, and continued under-performance for extended periods of time by people hitting in positions 4-7 of the batting order will doom this team to repeat its record vs. Texas last year and guarantee we do not get ‘over the hump’. So – does the motion die for lack of a second, or does someone second and offer amendments?


      • I like the general idea, Mr. Bill so I will second it (that and $5+ will get you a Starbucks latte) but daveb / uncleknuckle is right about 10 games not being enough to judge on in a game as streaky as baseball is. I’m thinking something more like 25 games or a month whichever comes last. That’s my amendment.


    • Look at Texas last year or Houston in 2005. A fast start is not always required to reach the postseason. However, not performing in September nullifies any performance in April.


  7. Nicely done Mr Bill.
    The minimum standards thought is an interesting one. We know they have dropped non-performers at times (Pena Ankiel) while hanging on to others. Gomez might be the one they don’t apply this to, but I never am thinking in front of this front office.


  8. C1 – Should be White, I am guessing it will be Singleton, which also likely damns Tucker to AAA – can the Astros carry 5 OF’ers with a full time DH? Marisnick provides a lot more from the bench that Tucker does singularly assigned as a hitter.

    C2 – Fiers and Fister because Feldman will probably open the season on the DL. I think all 3 will get plenty of starts this year though, if Feldman isn’t traded over the course of the season.

    C3 – Castro and Stassi will be the two we see this year catch most games. I think Heineman will get Stassi’s role last year, late look, or we could see him if either catcher goes down. I don’t think we will see Gattis catch a game, but you never know.

    C4 – I think the bench is decided by the lineup. If Singleton bombs, and White wins 1B, he provides more flexibility against lefties and doesn’t hamstring this team. If Singleton and Valbuena mans both corners on opening day, I don’t see anyway the Astros can not keep either Duffy or White on the roster – which puts Tucker or Marisnick at AAA. If they keep both Tucker and Marisnick then Valbuena sees a lot of AB’s against lefties.

    C5 – Giles will probably close. Luke did a good job IMO but they didn’t trade the 1-1 and VV for an 8th inning guy. They wanted a shut down, strike out kinda pitcher for that role. I really like Gregerson, he is a professional. He changed his pitching style last year to suit his new park, cut his fly ball rate in half by basically almost abandoning his change, throwing his fastball more and keeping it down. The guy knows pitching. We are fortunate to have him here.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. C2 – I’ve done a 180 here. I like the Fister signing because we have LMJ and Keuchel coming off career highs in IP. I would like to see all our starters kept fresh, so having an extra starter on the roster can allow Hinch to push things back a day at times, counter long rain delays or suspended games, etc. I suspect Feldman gets that #6 / long relief role.


    • Luhnow has already stated that LMJ will be on a pitch limit this year and, thus, the reason he wanted another SP. With Feldman’s injury from last year I really like the Fister signing, especially if he can come close to the pitcher he was in 2011-2014.


  10. 1. If the short guy(White, at 5’11”) hits .375 in spring training and Singleton hits .200, has Singleton lost the job because of his performance? Or has he won the job because of his salary(which is why he was given the job to lose in the first place)? If Altuve tells the media that Reed is already a better hitter than he is(like he told the media last spring that Correa was already a better player), does Reed get sent down anyway? The whole thing sucks that Luhnow made a terrible deal with Singleton and now the entire organization gets screwed because of that decision. I say put the absolute best player on first base and send the other two down, whoever they are! Marwin is the backup 1B.
    2. Who wins the last two spots in the rotation? Answer: the pitchers who are the best two starting pitchers. Forget the salaries, forget the years of control left, forget last year. Give the jobs to the guys who are pitching the best. Let Hinch and Strom make the call. That’s what they’re here for.
    3. Catcher. Gattis is probably going to make the club as a DH. If you keep just Castro and Gattis you could end up in trouble if Castro gets hurt and Gattis is already in the lineup as a DH. That means the pitcher has to bat. Not keeping a real backup catcher would be weird.
    4. How to have a flexible bench? Answer: Have your starting lineup consist of players who can hit .260! Let White play DH, Let Reed play 1B, let Duffy and Valbuena play 3b, Keep Marisnick and Heineman and Stassi and Marwin. Trade Castro, Trade Singleton, Trade Gattis. You don’t need a bench much if all your starters can hit!
    5.Bullpen? Answer: Dan P’s answer in the blog is it. Let Giles close and let Hinch make the rest of the decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They haven’t given the job to Singleton yet. They just said it was his to lose. Let’s see what happens when the 25-man roster is finalized before we assume anyone is getting screwed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We don’t have to assume. We got screwed. Singleton has made $3,500,000 the last two seasons. The entire organization got screwed! it’s embarrassing how much he has been paid and how truly awful he has been as a major league player.


      • OP, this happens all the time in baseball The Yankees are screwed by A-Rod’s contract and the Angels are screwed by Pujols’ contract. $10M ($2M/year) is a pittance in baseball money . No one got screwed in the SIngleton contract unless the Astros play him over someone more deserving, which hasn’t happened yet.


      • Tim, I know it is not a lot of money in baseball, but it is interesting that JL would say it is his job to lose. Why not tell Duffy or White or Reed, it is their job to lose? Singleton gets first crack because of his contract, not because of his ability. Lets just hope he turns out to be a bargain at $2 Mill in 2016. Springer, McCullers and Correa with similar years of experience are making a lot less and they see that.


      • Well since Jim Crane said you need to ante up $10 million to have an opinion about the way the Astros are run and Singleton is “earning” $10 million does that mean Jon gets a say….
        He should have let old pro have the $10 million and an opinion on how this team is run – that would have been money well spent


      • I have said I am not a Singleton fan and I don’t think he will earn the spot, but the Astros saying it is his job to lose was probably done to light a fire under him. White has not played a day in the major leagues yet and Duffy has limited major league experience. There is a learning curve for everyone not named Correa and Altuve. I am sure the $2M/year given to Singleton is part of the reason they want him to earn the starting spot, but no one is screwed by it. Besides, the bargain we got on Altuve more than makes up for the Singleton money. Altuve, by himself, is worth more than $6.5M/year.


      • AC, Singleton has the ability and probably, besides Reed, has the higher ceiling than White or Duffy. It’s just a matter of whether he can figure it out. I am sure the Astros front office believes Reed is the 1B of the future, but he hasn’t even played at AAA yet. Singleton, at one time, was ranked as the best 1B prospect in all of baseball. You don’t get that ranking without having the tools to be a very good baseball player. Not every top prospect figures it out, but they all have the tools.


      • Tim, I think the problem is e convinced ourselves Singleton was Ryan Howard and Appel was Curt Schilling. The flaw in Singleton that I see is also shared by Chris Carter, AJ Reed, Evan Gattis, and Jason Castro – missing fastballs in hittable locations because the velocity was too much. Gear up to not get beat and you can’t touch the low and away slider/changeup. Of the bunch, I think Reed and Singleton can both overcome the tendency with some work…but think Singleton more likely to do so at MLB level this spring.


      • Devin,

        I agree with everything you said. That’s my point with Singleton. He has the tools, but will he figure out major league pitching? He hasn’t yet, but it takes some players several seasons before they do. Chris Davis is a prime example. He was jettisoned between Arlington and Round Rock several times with the Rangers before they essentially gave up on him. I don’t have faith Singleton will figure it out, but that’s more because of his work ethic, or lack thereof, than his ability.


  11. With Singleton, it’s time to fish or cut bait.
    On the #4 and #5 in the rotation, I’m with the majority. That’s Fiers and Fister with Feldman as #6. If either fails to perform or injuries, then he gets the shot. 7 – 12 MM for Fister is a pretty expensive insurance policy. It looks like the BP cost will be 30MM+ this year. Of course if we get to the WS a small price to pay.
    Now with the catcher spot who knows what will happen there. Castro will be there but after that it’s anyone’s guess. If he can do it Gattis will be the #2 or #3 option. I would think thay want him as #2.
    I like the bench options. Margo, JFSF, Tucker, and plenty of other options. A lot deoends who performs in ST but that’s not always the case.
    The closer should be Giles with Gregorson as #2. i like what we have in Sipp, Harris, Neshak and Fields. As the lefty spot, Harris was good against lefties also.
    Can’t wait for ST to start.


  12. I guess the one thing that has not been stated is that there is an assumption that Fister is healthy, is more ready to go than Feldman. He also had problems last season so it is not a given that he will be healthy to start the season.


    • Luhnow says Fister is healthy.
      Feldman says Feldman is healthy.
      Fiers was never hurt.
      Peacock say Peacock is ready.
      I guess the BOR is going to be a healthy BOR.


      • Yes – it is amazing how many players are in the best shape of their lives the first week of February. I was in the best shape of my life in February – about 40 years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I saw where the guy with one of the more memorable nicknames in baseball history passed away – Walt “No Neck” Williams. He made his debut with the Colt .45’s back in 1964, but was hitless in 10 ABs. He bounced around the minors and then had a couple good years with the ChiSox.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Baseball has some great nicknames and that is one of the best. Today, someone would be sued for being politically incorrect.

      My favorite (if I understood correctly) was a Latin ballplayer called “Manos De Estómago”. Stomach Hands ???? When I asked, the explanation was everything goes right through them.


      • i didnt know that one ac45. the three best nicknames in baseball for me were:
        1. ‘no neck’ williams – watched him play when i was about 10, he truly looked like he had no neck.
        2. ‘happy’ hooten. burt hooten had kind of a permanent scowl
        3. i know berkman preferred ‘the big puma’ but ‘fat elvis’ was one of the best nicknames ever.


  14. Anybody else notice that the New York Yankees have not spent one nickel in free agency. They are the only team to not have spent anything. Look out for the Yankees and their money at the conclusion of the 2017 season.


    • So this means that their estimated payroll (which includes 5 guys guaranteed to make more than $20 million each this season) is “only” going to be around $230 million this season. This reminds me of the Monty Python skit where the man eats everything in the restaurant and then the mint causes him to explode. The Yanks (Spit!! and Nausea!!!) are passing on the mint at least.
      Since their payroll last season was approx. $214 million – they are not yet on a diet, just a slowdown.


  15. The Astros are a hard team to figure out because:
    -Singleton was not here most of the year last year.
    -Altuve is a Gold Glove 2B, all of a sudden. That’s new.
    -Correa was rookie of the year, but this is his first full year.
    -Valbuena was a different kind of player than previously.
    -Rasmus was temporary. Now he wants to be here till he retires.
    -Gomez was a Brewer and now he is an Astro.
    -Lowrie was satisfied, then hurt, now gone.
    -Springer may be full-time for the first time. How will his luck hold out?
    -Marisnick was the starting CF last year. Not right now, though.
    -Conger is gone, Castro is in his last year before FA, and Stassi could actually see some major league time.
    -Keuchel is famous and rich.
    -McCullers wasn’t invited to camp last spring and now is a #3 starter.
    -Fiers was a Brewer last spring.
    -Fister was a starter on a team who was a world series favorite last spring. Now with the Astros, who are suddenly a favorite, too.
    -Feldman was hurt a lot last year.
    -Will Harris was a long shot to make last year’s team
    -Sipp was a free agent who left and came home in the same year
    -Neshek is kinda starting over with the team because of health
    -Gregerson was the closer last season, but probably won’t be this year.
    -Giles was just a reliever on a bad team, ended up a closer on a good team this year.
    The only two guys who seem to be in their exact same situation as last season are McHugh and Gonzalez, and Marwin’s making twice as much this year, so that’s changed some.
    McHugh is a steady guy who is pretty much in the exact same place as last year.
    The team is hard to figure because just about everyone on the team is in a different set of circumstances than they were in last year. Can’t wait to see how they blend.


    • Wow Old Pro when shown this way – that is pretty amazing. Even with McHugh I think the difference is that last season we were wondering if he could do it again after his first good year in 2014 and this season we believe he is a solid #2 headed into the season.


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