Ah, here we are. The last week of Spring Training. I would assume that for most players, ST drags on and on. Maybe the young guys and prospects see these games as a proving ground of sorts, but generally, the level of excitement surrounding a spring contest isn't all that high.
That's not to say that Spring Training isn't important or can't be interesting for fans. I guess if you root for a team like the Yankees or the Phillies, your Opening Day roster is fairly set even before your plane sets down in the Sunshine State in February. With stars and above average players comprising an enviable amount of their rosters, these contending clubs don't have a lot in the way of question marks or positional battles to ruminate over.
Not our Astros though. True, the majority of our roster spots were locked up long ago as well. Question marks and battles to determine both roster spots and roles on the team have gone a long way in being determined over the past month. With many cuts already having been made, which questions have already been answered?
- Who will open the season as the starting catcher: J.R. Towles or Jason Castro? I think we can all feel good about how this situation played out. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the veteran Towles has beaten out his young understudy, Mr. Castro. After being given seemingly his last shot to receive significant playing time for the team, J.R. responded quite well in February and March. Seven of his twelve hits have gone for extra bases. It's not as if Jason Castro hasn't played well himself, but it's just that there should be no rush to have him catch for the Astros before he is ready to roll. He can thank J.R. Towles for teaching management that lesson.
- What about the rotation? It's tough to make any assessments about a pitcher (any player for that matter) with sample sizes this small. The new edition, Brett Myers, has looked good at times but has struggled with command and the long ball in spurts. Wandy Rodriguez in each of his past two starts has looked dreadful in inning number one, but has rebounded nicely. Keeping balls down in the hitting zone and maintaining a strong K:BB won't necessarily translate to the regular season, but it's at least something to take note of. Roy is Roy. Steady as she goes, and it appears that his hamstring worry isn't nothing to fret about. The young pitchers, Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris, haven't done much to win a spot in the rotation, but then again, nobody is really nipping at their heels either. At least Paulino came through with a nice performance in his last start (5 IP, 1 R, 6 K, 1 BB), which should propel him into the fifth starter's slot.
Injuries, injuries, injuries. For a team that is as top heavy as the Astros, it's an imperative that our starters stay healthy in order for us to compete. Lance Berkman is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and is optimistic about playing Opening Day. It's unlikely that he can make it back, but the idea of him missing a series or two as opposed to any significant time is music to Astros fans ears. Michael Bourn returned to game action on Saturday after missing time due to a strained oblique. Tommy Manzella's quad injury doesn't appear to be serious, but it did allow the organization to see its lack of depth on full display, with the likes of Geoff Blum, Edwin Maysonet and Jeff Keppinger being forced into playing short for periods of time with varying degrees of success. The most serious injury, perhaps, was to reliever Alberto Arias. The phrase "rotator cuff weakness" is not a pleasant one for baseball teams, and unfortunately this is what Arias is suffering from. With no time table set for his return, Sammy Gervacio has most likely stepped into Arias' middle relief role.
- Fifth outfielder's spot: It's down to two: Jason Bourgeois and Cory Sullivan. Odds are that Sullivan wins the competition to sit next to Jason Michaels and chew sunflower seeds. Bourgeois was slowed with hamstring issues, and to his credit, Sullivan took advantage of the opportunities he was given, substantial as they were. While there was talk of having Edwin Maysonet play roving fielder in a reserve role, the Astros are who they are- a team whose management makes decisions in a traditional manner. Cory Sullivan is a veteran who has played all three outfield spots before and this is right up Ed Wade's alley. He's probably the least interest candidate left, but come April 5th, he will assume his rightful bench spot alongside Blum and Michaels.
Disappointments, anyone? Well sure, you know we had to go here. Outside of the players already mentioned, I have to throw Tim Byrdak into this category. For a LOOGY who can't get lefties out and depends entirely way too much on a low BABIP, Byrdak does a fine job of getting paid a lot more than he probably should. A roster spot shall be his, despite younger and cheaper options (Wesley Wright and Polin Trinidad to name two) on the farm. The fact that the Astros are still looking into the possibility of either one of them transitioning into a starting pitcher's role has saved Byrdak was further worry about his making the team. Outside of the aforementioned Bud Norris doing nothing to knock my socks off, Byrdak continually underwhelms and offers zero upside.
- Who would Milo give a blue star to? Where do we start? Hunter Pence has hit like a crazy man. If Lance does miss time, it's good to know that Pence should be able to fill in quite well. Chris Johnson leads the club with five homers in the spring. He won't make the team in all likelihood, but at least he's made Brad Mills and Co. reason to stop and think. Pedro Feliz has looked like the defensive maven we had hoped for and he too has hit well. Kaz Matsui has *knock on wood* stayed healthy. The catcher battle has been fun, and most of our relievers have been lights out. Matt Lindstrom hasn't allowed an earned run all spring, while Jeff Fulchino, Chris Sampson and Sammy Gervacio have performed nearly as well. Even Tommy Manzella has hit well!
- What to make of the Brad Mills effect? Numerous players have come out and talked about how Brad Mills has been an optimistic, consistent guy around the clubhouse and on the field. While his Hunter-Lee-Berkman 3-4-5 batting order was a bit funny, he at least was trying things out in games that don't matter. True, we have no idea how good he will be at managing the bullpen or how judiciously he will hand out spot starts for reserve players. We already do know that he is excellent at managing personalities though, which is something this team lacked in the recent past. I don't know how much effect a manager has on the on field action, so if he is nothing else but a positive influence off of it, I will be pleased.