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Astros Spring Training Story Lines

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It appears that several members of my twitter feed feel that with the Super Bowl now over baseball season has begun. The NBA, NHL and March Madness might have something to say about that, but I'll play along.

While baseball still does have two months until it engulfs our lives, pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks and a week or so after that Florida and Arizona will again be filled with the crack of the bat and the whizzing of fastballs. With that in mind here are the Astros Spring Training story lines to keep an eye on during the month designated March Madness.

Who Wins the Third Base Job

It seems that the battle is between Jimmy Paredes and Chris Johnson despite my best efforts to get Matt Downs thrown in the conversation. Paredes has the defensive upside while Johnson has the power upside and Downs apparently has the pine upside.

Clack has already discussed in-depth Johnson's upside and ability to bounce back from his sophomore slump. I'll add that when Johnson went down to AAA last year he posted a BB% of 10.6 which is encouraging. With a .383 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) Paredes has got some serious regression coming his way. Whats interesting about his case is that he also struck out at a 26.3% of the time which is high, even for someone like Johnson. Paredes strikeout number had never been above 20% in the minors until the 2011 season (20.7% at AA).

Paredes strikeout rate could be a case of being rushed to the majors; spending more time in the minors could help his development. Let's also not forget that he only recently started playing third base on a full-time basis and still needs some work at the hot corner. In the minors he's played 112 games at third base and 197 at second base.

In limited playing time the pine rider posted a .276/.347/.518 line accompanied by a .315 BABIP. At the third base position that's an above average offensive player. Defensively he's closer to Johnson than he is to Paredes. Thing is Downs has been shifted around quite a bit in the infield as well and has even found a little time in the outfield, so given some solid time at one position we could see some improvements. Downs is probably better suited for second base but you can't ignore that offensive production at the third base position, even if it regresses a bit this season.

Who Fills Out The Rotation

The only sure things in the rotation are that Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Bud Norris have one of the first three spots, the other two are up for grabs. For sanity sake I'm going to avoid naming all ten pitchers vying for the fourth and fifth spot in the rotation. The two pitchers I'd peg in the lead right now are Livan Hernandez and J.A. Happ simply because of age and experience. Happ has nothing left to prove in AAA and this season may be make or break for him, especially considering he's making $2.35 Million.

Hernandez is...well Hernandez. He's going to go out there and provide close to 30 starts a season, last year he had 29 but that was the first time since 1997 that he didn't manage to reach 30 starts. His career 5.56 strikeouts per nine (K/9) and 3.03 walks per nine (BB/9) leave something to be desired, but he's proven to be durable and reliable for a back end of the rotation starter.

Potential starters that could make the bullpen are Zach Duke, Xavier Cedeno, Lucas Harrell, Henry Sosa and Aneury Rodriguez. Then there are the young guys who if they don't make the rotation out of Spring Training will most likely be a part of the rotation of the future: Jordan Lyles, Kyle Weiland and Paul Clemens.

Hmm...well I guess I did name all nine pitchers.

The Trifecta That is First Base, Left Field and Right Field

It's been speculated that Carlos Lee's position could be at either first base or in left field. However, If you've read the most recent article at Astros.com you'll notice a tid bit in there that makes it pretty clear where Lee will be playing.

About the only positions not up for grabs are first base, where Carlos Lee returns in the sixth and final year of his contract

That almost certainly sounds like Brett Wallace will be Oklahoma's starting first basemen this season. But that's not all, there was also some information on J.D. Martinez.

Martinez is all but assured a starting job in the outfield based on his bang-up 2011 debut after being called up from Double-A.

As you'll notice Martinez isn't designated for left field so it's possible that someone like Jack Cust or Fernadno Martinez could grab a spot as the starting left fielder. I certainly think Brian Bogusevic has the upper hand in right field but it's far from a sure thing that he'll be the starter come April. And I don't know how much I buy into Lee for sure being the starting first baseman, but this could be an indication about how the Astros front office feels about Wallace. In any case while the trifecta position battle may not happen, we should at least see some interesting battles for the corner outfield spots..

The Back End of the Bullpen

One of the reason why we won't be discussing the shortstop position much this Spring is because the Astros somehow managed to pry Jed Lowrie from the Red Sox for former Astros closer Mark Melancon. Jeff Luhnow managed to fix one need, but in doing so left a gaping hole in the bullpen -- I'd rather have that hole than one at shortstop. While we could be cringing in May when the Astros reach double digits in blown saves that really wouldn't be all that different from last year.

Among the candidates for the closers role are Juan Abreu, David Carpenter, Wilton Lopez, Fernando Rodriguez, the rule 5 selection Rhiner Cruz and yes everyone's favorite Brandon Lyon. According to our own injury expert Subber10, even just pitching for the Astros may be a feat on its own for Lyon. Abreu and Cruz have the stuff but lack control; Carpenter has the fastball but not much else; Lopez is coming off injury and is probably better suited in the setup role anyways; and Rodriguez has a deep repertoire but is very hittable. With so few innings to evaluate relievers in Spring Training don't be surprised if the bullpen battle carries over into the season.

If you want a more in depth look at closer candidates I'd suggest reading conrestro's article from December.

Avoiding Injuries

There's nothing like a Spring Training injury to crush the hopes of fans. Last year for the Astros it was Jason Castro and Clint Barmes. Instead of waiting for Spring Training this year Castro decided to get the injury out of the way during the offseason. Recent reports indicate he'll be ready for Opening Day but Lance Berkman said the same thing a few seasons ago he didn't show until May.

It's not so much that Astro fans thought the Astros would of been competitive last year, but instead of seeing what Castro could do we saw what J.R. Towles couldn't do. This lead to a revolving door at the catching position before finally seeing Carlos Corporan and Humberto Quintero settle in with a majority of the playing time. Q provides some entertaining defense especially when he pulls off plays like this, but that's about the only positive thing you can say about that tandem. The same thing happened at the shortstop position where we got to see almost a full month of Angel Sanchez.

Injuries are probably going to play a part in how some of these position battles play out, but the hope is managing to avoid anything serious. I'm putting in the paperwork for a restraining order against Will Carroll.

Who Wins the Second Base Job

These next two positions will probably be on the lighter side of competition. The heir apparent at second base appears to be Jose Altuve but again I wouldn't count out Matt Downs. Altuve certainly held his own both offensively and defensively last season, but there's a concerning trend in regards to his walk rate. He started 2011 in A+ at Lancaster and posted an 8% walk rate. In Corpus Christi at AA he posted a 4.6% walk rate. At the Major league level he posted a 2.1% walk rate, which isn't going to cut it. His BABIP doesn't give much hope as he posted a .309 to go along with a .276/.297/.357 line. Like Paredes spending some more time in the minors wouldn't be a bad thing; banking on him fixing his walk issues at the Major League level could be.

Who Starts in Center Field

I'm calling this the dark horse position battle, because it has the potential to be very interesting. I think you have to pencil in Jordan Schafer in center field simple because of his potential that no other current outfielder seems to have. However, with the recent peanut butter cup incident the Astros should be keeping the eraser close. Jason Bourgeois would be adequate there and does provide speed, but not the on base skills for the top of the lineup. Recently signed Justin Ruggiano could be an option as he's proven to be sound defensively and could pull a Bogusevic this year. Maybe there's someone else the Astros are willing to try like a Bogusevic or Travis Buck.

It will certainly be interesting to see who ends up there and we might even be able to gauge how far the Astros are willing to go in trying something creative.

Will There be a Change in Brad Mills Philosophy

This won't be an easy one to determine from Spring Training as players are in and out of games before you've grabbed your first hot dog. It's not secret that some fans have been upset with Mills' use of some players (see: Brett Wallace, Brian Bogusevic, Jason Michaels, Angel Sanchez, Matt Downs). Yes fans do typically have something to gripe about, especially when a team is bad, but I don't think it's all necessarily unwarranted.

From Wallace and Bogusevic sitting against lefties to Sanchez getting more plate appearances than Downs, not finding out what a young player can do in a lost season doesn't help with the rebuilding process. As fans with an objective view that drives us nuts and doesn't help us feel hope for the rebuilding process. I'm not ready to give up on Mills especially with a new regime and more statistical resources at his disposal. Mills has the potential to grow as a manager and I'd like to see some of that growth occurring in Spring Training.

Who Takes a Step Forward and Who Takes a Step Backward

This is going to be a recurring theme in both the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues this season, but there are some players who will need to take a step forward in Spring Training. Wallace is probably the first name that jumps to mind. He struggled last year and signs aren't particularly good for his future, but this could be a big Spring Training for him.

Will Jose Altuve and Jimmy Paredes confirm that their call-ups last season were warranted? Can Schafer put all his off the field issues behind him and get some stability in his on field numbers? Can Lowrie be the shortstop that makes Luhnow look like a genuis? There are several surprises both good and bad awaiting us in Spring Training.

It's good to have baseball back.