The 2020 season was a particular challenge for the Astros front office and dugout management when it came to pitching. Rather than a policy of Next Man Up, it became a policy of Next Men Up.
Joe Smith sat out while spending time with his dying mother. Jose Urquidy missed most of the season recovering from COVID. Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski all missed most of the season with injuries after only a few appearances. So, the Astros cycled many Next Men Up, some who fulfilled the name (Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Brooks Raley) and some who became the Next Men Up and Down (Nivaldo Rodriguez, Humberto Castellanos, Carlos Sanabria). On the offensive side, the only real long term loss was DH Yordan Alvarez, whose knees took him out after two games and was replaced mostly by a tag team of Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker.
The 2020 season was then a real test of the Astros pitching depth, which showed itself well considering how many holes in the dike appeared. But what if the health bug swings to the position side in 2021? There is a lot of speculation here, but let’s take a shot at what injuries might mean at each position.
First Base. Despite having his worst offensive year as an Astro, Yuli Gurriel started 54 of the 60 regular-season games played by the Astros. If he went down in 2021, the likely long term solution would be rookie Taylor Jones with a bit of veteran Aledmys Diaz tossed in there for good measure. Abraham Toro might get some reps there too.
Second Base. After being almost a little iron man earlier in his career, Jose Altuve has been missing more time lately, playing in 137, 124 and 48 (out of 60) games the last three seasons. Aledmys Diaz would be the next man up, though other players as diverse as C Garrett Stubbs and OF Myles Straw might have some reps there. With the OF’s holes, it should not be expected that Straw would have many reps for the infield, but who knows. If this became a long term deal or if Diaz was needed elsewhere, the Astros might be dipping down to the minors (Jeremy Pena?) to fill this spot.
Shortstop. Carlos Correa started 56 of the 60 games at shortstop for the Astros and certainly will be trying to show up as often as possible in his free agent year (I’m not buying the sign an extension before the season storyline). But that has not been Carlos’ strong point, playing in 109, 110 and 75 games in 2017-2019. For shorter spurts, this might again be Aledmys Diaz, but for a longer haul, they could move Alex Bregman over to his original position with the thought that it is easier to fill in at 3B. Straw again has played at SS a bit, and of course, Pena could force a call up with the good play in the minors.
Third Base. There needs to be a Plan B with the tweaked hamstring news for Alex Bregman oozing out of Spring Training. The backup plan would again include Diaz, who, of course, is only one man if there are multiple injury holes to fill. Abraham Toro is also an option at third, and the Astros could let Yuli return to his natural position for a game or two.
Catcher. The Astros are in much better shape this season than last when Martin Maldonado took on a heavier load than you would want from a catcher of his age due to the poor play of backup Dustin Garneau. With Jason Castro’s addition, the Astros have two players who have filled the main catching role before. If one goes down, the other can be the featured catcher with someone (Garrett Stubbs? Korey Lee?) filling in a couple games a week.
Designated Hitter. With Yordan Alvarez having missed basically the whole of 2020 and playing with knee soreness in 2019, there has to be some concern that this could be a chronic problem rather than one that the off-season knee surgery successfully addressed. With the lack of proven outfield depth, this is more problematic as Michael Brantley would be expected to spend more time in the OF than at DH this year. Perhaps they would fill a hole here with a rotation of Brantley, Gurriel, Correa, Altuve, Bregman, and Tucker to keep them all fresh.
Right Field. Kyle Tucker has been a sturdy player throughout his career with the Astros. Ironically he is shown as the main RF on depth charts even though he spent a lot more time in left field in 2020. But with George Springer and Josh Reddick gone and the Astros supposedly needing to use the older Michael Brantley in left field, this would be his expected spot. Behind him would likely be veteran Steven Souza Jr. or youngster Chas McCormick.
Center Field. This is, of course, the $64,000 question and one that may not be fully answered until well into the season. How will the Astros fill the giant Grand Canyon gap in centerfield left by Springer’s flight to Toronto? Using the old cliche “if the season started today,” this would be Myles Straw in centerfield. If he produces like he did in 2019, he can hold this spot. If he non-produces like in 2020, he will not be long for the lineup. Behind him right now is Chas McCormick, but there is much anticipation about the eventual rise of Cuban signee Pedro Leon.
Left Field. Yes, this is going to be Michael Brantley most nights. Just remember he will turn 34 in May, only played 19 games in LF last year (mostly due to Alvarez’s absence) and only started 118 games in the outfield in 2019. Right now, the main backup is shown as the newest Swiss Army knife, Aledmys Diaz. But there will undoubtedly be times that Tucker, Straw and even Yordan Alvarez will be over there.
Anyway, this could all be hooey by the time the season comes around, but for right now, this is how the Next Man Up looks like for the Astros.