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Spring Training Game Thread: Astros v. Nationals, 12:05 PM CT

Lance McCullers Jr. starts on the mound, Kyle Tucker mans first base against defending champs in Grapefruit League action

Houston Astros v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

When and where Kyle Tucker will seize a regular role has been a hot topic among Astros fans for the better part of two years now. The young slugger has proven just about everything he can at the minor league level, but has had uneven performances in the bigs thus far and hasn’t yet been able to wrestle the every day right field gig from Josh Reddick. While I and many others believe that Tucker would return superior value if handed that role, the Astros have appeared reticent, under both Jeff Luhnow and James Click thus far, to make that move despite Reddick’s offensive performance steadily deteriorating.

I’d expect that Tucker does end up winning the RF gig at some point this season if not out of camp, but it appears that the club is flirting with another potential path to playing time for their prized youngster. After taking some ground balls yesterday, Tucker is slotted into today’s lineup at first base. The Astros also have a veteran starter at that position, Yuli Gurriel, who doubled his career WAR total in 2019 on the back of a power explosion, but Gurriel is 35, backs up other infield positions and was a very fringy starter offensively before last season. Tucker will probably need quite a few more reps before being battle-ready at first, and the defensive value provided by his legs and arm would be all but lost, but it’s interesting to see the Astros exploring another avenue to playing time for Tucker. Perhaps the team could also revisit the possibility of Michael Brantley sliding down to first base on some days to open playing time for Tucker in left field as well. Left field is arguably a more difficult assignment in Minute Maid Park for a young outfielder, but Brantley’s defensive tools have deteriorated and it might even aid his value if he’s solid with the glove on the dirt.

The other most interesting training camp storyline for the Astros is the battle for roster spots among the pitchers, both starters and relievers. With Justin Verlander slated to open the year on the IL, the Astros now have two open rotation spots to start the year and four legitimate competitors. Before Verlander’s injury, Josh James looked positioned to seize the lone opening, but with the ace on the shelf, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez and Bryan Abreu will get longer looks as starters. Pruitt has the most big league experience of the group and superior present command, making him the presumptive favorite, but Abreu’s stuff is in another class and he may be able to overcome shaky command to earn the role. Today Lance McCullers will take the ball to start things off, but a number of arms in camp are competing in addition to warming up for the season and are worth watching closely.

Today’s contest will also be an opportunity for fans to get a good look at a trio of notable position prospects- outfielders Chas McCormick and Ronnie Dawson, and shortstop Jeremy Pena. McCormick’s superior versatility give him a good chance to be a long term bench contributor, Dawson flies around the outfield and offers big power but little contact, and Pena is a silky defender at short who has worked tirelessly to add power to his hit-first offensive profile. All three could crack the big club over the next season or two and should be playing hungry while they’re still in big league camp.