What's the most prevalent Astros debate from now until the end of spring training? Of course, it's whether Cesar Izturis or Gregorio Petit will start at short for Oklahoma City. A close second is the Great Springer Debate, which Evan Drellich only enflamed with his article on when Springer will be called up.
Tied into that story is the news that Houston invited a ton of prospects to big league camp, including IF Japhet Amador, RHP Mark Appel, RHP Jake Buchanan, IF Carlos Correa, RHP Rhiner Cruz, RHP Jorge De Leon, OF Delino DeShields, RHP Bobby Doran, RHP Mike Foltynewicz, C Rene Garcia, C Tyler Heineman, OF Leo Heras, OF J.D. Martinez, IF Jonathan Meyer, C Carlos Perez, OF George Springer, RHP Jason Stoffel, IF Ronald Torreyes, RHP Nick Tropeano and OF Preston Tucker. The four minor league free agents are OF Adron Chambers, IF Cesar Izturis, RHP Peter Moylan and IF Gregorio Petit.
That's a lot of names. You probably got just as excited as I did to see guys like Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, Preston Tucker and Mike Foltynewicz on the list. But, what does it mean? Should we be happy they are in big league camp? Does that mean they could break camp with the Astros?
Therein lies the paradox. We know (or should know) that spring stats are meaningless. So much of what goes on there is like extended practice, with non-roster guys throwing tons of innings late in games before the 25-man rosters round into shape. So, performance by a rookie in those situations might not be about being major-league ready as it is about being Double-A ready.
At the same time, seeing a Correa or a DDJ hang on into the third or fourth week of big league camp would be thrilling, right? Seeing Folty flash his big fastball in a few big league starts could get our hopes up, even as we know there is very little chance of him breaking camp with the team.
Why, then, do teams bring up so many players as non-roster invitees? The simplest reason is numbers. It's easier to call up a bunch of minor leaguers to stretch out those games and give the everyday players a rest early in camp, rather than burn out the regular roster with long bus rides and the like.
More than that, it's a period of acclimatizing younger players to the big league lifestyle. Let's say, for instance, that the Astros really feel Carlos Correa has a shot to be the starting shortstop on Opening Day 2015. They know he won't make it this year, but he might after a season at High A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi.
If that's the case, doesn't it make more sense to bring him up now and get him used to the major league grind. That way, when he's seriously competing for a roster spot next spring, he can focus just on that, not figuring out where the post-game buffet table is.
There's also a very slight chance someone can get so locked in for five weeks that he forces his way onto the roster sooner than we thought. Consider this the Luke Scott Corollary. If Preston Tucker mashes the ball to the tune of .400/.500/.600 for all of spring training, hitting home run after home run off legitimate major league pitching, could he see Houston in May? It's very likely.
In that sense, these minor league non-roster invites are another step in the constant evaluation of these players. Five weeks won't drastically change how an organization views someone like Bobby Doran, but five weeks coupled with a solid month in OKC could.
That's why we should care about these minor league invites while still knowing they are ultimately not going to affect the Opening Day roster. It's a strange place to be in, but we're in January and Tanaka Mania has locked down any other interesting news from leaking out.
We're just living in strange, paradoxical times.