Steve Campbell made a small, but very note-worthy point in his game recap of yesterday's split-squad action:
For Figueroa, it was an unsettling outing of sorts. The 1-5 spots of the batting order consisted of Scott Hairston, Emaus, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Zach Lutz – not exactly the names manager Terry Collins will scrawl on the lineup card when the games count. Figueroa wasn’t working off any scouting reports, so he had to wing it a bit.
"There’s that uncertainty: Is that guy going to swing at that first pitch fastball when I’m just trying to get ahead?" Figueroa said. "If I throw that first-pitch fastball over the plate and a kid I’ve never heard of hits a home run, that looks bad on me."
The emphasis there is mine. When we're evaluating these spring performances, it's easy to lose sight of a simple, yet huge, point. The Astros are doing more self-evaluation right now than they are looking at other teams. Some pitchers have a comfort level with batters they saw last season and a general idea of how to get them out.
For the most part, though, Houston pitchers are "winging it." If we are to believe that Brad Arnsberg really works magic with all that tape he watches and the game plan he puts together, then we shouldn't put too much stock in a player's performance when he doesn't have that to fall back on, right?
Wait, there I go again, treating spring training like it's real baseball. I know you know that spring numbers don't mean much. We are getting a better feel, however, for the roster decisions Houston might be making soon. To that end, let's check in on how those players are doing in their quest to make the roster.
Note: no players of the week this week, simply because these are spring games. We'll pick this up once the season begins.
Hunter Pence, red-hot: It's not Pence's sterling batting average that jumps out. It's how he's getting the hits. He's pushing the ball up the middle, going the other way and scalding singles left and right. Last weekend, I heard the radio guys talking about how Pence might want to move the Astros' home games to Osceola County Stadium because he hits so well there. Maybe that's the simple explanation, but I'd like to think Pence is just going into the regular season a bit more locked in than he was last year.
Jason Michaels, volatile: On the one hand, Michaels has been pretty solid at the plate so far this spring. He's hitting for power and showing some good contact skills. Both are what the Astros look for from their primary pinch-hitter. However, the arm injury that has kept Michaels off the field for much of the spring. Now that he's also suffering from back spasms, will he be ready to go by Opening Day? From the way it's been talked about, all these injuries are probably something that J-Mike could play through if this were the regular season. But, since he's a vet and Brad Mills is familiar with him, he's getting some time off.
Matt Downs, rising quickly: Did you have Matt Downs in the "Which Astro Will Hit Multiple Home Runs First?" pool? Did you have him down for hitting the Astros first home run of the spring? Neither did most people. Downs is making a pretty big push right now to make the team, hitting a home run against the Mets today while starting at third. The biggest concern with Downs, like clack pointed out in a comment recently, is that he can't play shortstop. That limits him to backing up at third and second. If he's paired with Tommy Manzella as the other infielder, that works out, but if it's Angel Sanchez? Downs still has a ways to go before he plays himself onto the roster, but so far, things are looking good.
J.D. Martinez, rising: I had originally intended this to be about Martinez successfully coming back from his strained quadriceps to make his spring debut last weekend. Then, he goes and hits a no-doubt home run made three different media members gush slightly about it on Twitter. I got my Prospect Handbook from Baseball America earlier this week and I've been combing through it. I should have an article up tomorrow talking about tidbits I picked up from it, but one of the biggest things that stood out to me was Martinez. He's apparently added 20 pounds of muscle since he was drafted. If he can overcome his "swing plane" to get some more loft on pitches consistently, Martinez could easily average 20 homers a season, with a chance to hit more. The last guy to hit around .300 with 20-plus homers is the new Face of the Team. Just sayin'.
Jimmy Paredes, dropping quickly: It's not been a kind week for Paredes. Yes, he's appeared in quite a few games since we last touched base with him, but Paredes wasn't very good in those games. In one, he committed two errors on one play and in another, he was inserted as a pinch-runner and was promptly picked off. Both are huge "No-No's" and will likely get him reassigned to minor league camp soon.
T.J. Steele, slowly rising: My nemesis has actually been pretty effective lately. Tuesday, he led off with a walk and then stole second base. He finished the game 1 for 3 with a run scored and two strikeouts. He's also been playing a fine center field by all accounts, making him exactly valuable enough to keep in camp until the last round of cuts. He probably doesn't have a shot at making the big league roster, but he's definitely keeping those five tools on display. Well, four tools, since he's never shown much power. And, really, his arm isn't a strength for him. But that's still a solid three tools.
J.R. Towles, about to go public: What's going on with Towles? I, possibly wrongly, take it that this Astros front office doesn't have much faith in Towles. That's based more on how they've treated him the past two season. But, now it seems the Astros may have called off the search for another catcher, assuming that Towles or Corporan will win the job. Towles certainly has made a strong case for it at the plate, moving his hands back to where they were in 2007 and 2008 when he hit quite well. There's still probably some upside here and if nothing else, having Towles hit well as the starting catcher for a season will give the Astros a more valuable trading chip next winter.
Aneury Rodriguez, up a few points: After two bad outings, Rodriguez put things together nicely in his start against Boston. He did allow four hits, but he also didn't allow any runs and only walked one batter. The strikeouts were down, but I'm chalking that up to the whole "scouting report" thing until told otherwise. Has he edged past Figueroa or Lyles for the top spot in the fifth starter's race? Not likely, but a few more starts like this will cement his status in the Astros 2011 bullpen for sure.
Ross Wolf, nosing downward: Wolf probably didn't have the best chance of making the roster before a disastrous outing against the Tigers on Saturday. Not only did he allow a lot of traffic, he gave up runs. It's still early and Wolf could turn things around, but it's more likely that he'll be a minor league guy who might get called up if there are injuries. The radio guys were impressed how he worked out of a bases-loaded, no outs jam Saturday and I'm sure the Astros will file that away for later in the season.
Patrick Urckfitz, bottoming out: Do you know who leads Houston in both runs allowed and strikeouts? One Patrick Urckfitz, who was the 31st best prospect in the system according to Baseball America. You name it and Urckfitz has run into it, giving up a home run, seven hits and seven runs in 3 2/3 innings while walking two and striking out five. The longest shot to make the big league roster in camp, Urckfitz is assured of a ticket to the minors, but he's at least shown a little potential. Amidst the wreckage he's caused this spring, he did miss some bats.
Chris Johnson, trending upwards: Because of Twitter only, Johnson is "trending." He's doing fine otherwise with a few defensive gaffes and an extra-base hit here and there. Being the third Astro on Twitter, though, gets him upward mobility. Now if only he'll follow @crawfishboxes.
Bud Norris, tweaked: Whatever twinge Bud Norris felt in his start the other day looks like it'll come of nothing. Norris has already thrown again with no discomfort and shouldn't miss a start. However, after Will Carroll's prophesy about Jason Castro coming true so quickly after it was written, I can't be the only one who was nervous about Budly's injury.