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Five Things to Watch in the Astros’ 2021 Spring Training

The games don’t count, but there’s plenty of interest for the observant and knowledgeable fan.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Training games start Sunday. Wow. Even with all the drama in the world since then, it almost seems like just last month when the Astros played their last game in 2020. (losing game seven of the ALCS) It was their fourth straight trip to the American League Championship Series.

If all you care about in a baseball game is who wins, then Spring Training is boring. The games don’t count, and it’s a well known fact that success in Spring Training has no relationship to success in the regular season. And that’s also true for individual performances as well.

So why care about Spring Training?

The knowledgeable fan watches for the mini-dramas of Spring Training, often involving players who are considered of marginal importance. Still, these back stories can end up making a big difference in the make up of the team, and even how successful the team is in the regular season.

Is so-and-so back from injury? Who’s gonna win the competition for xyz position? Is the hot prospect finally ready for the bigs? These questions and many others.

So what are the back stories in the Astros’ 2021 Spring Training?

1. Outfield Competition

With George Springer and Josh Reddick gone this year, the only two locks in the outfield, barring a late acquisition, are Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker. On the upside, they both have a chance to be All Stars. Presumably, center field belongs to the weak hitting speedster, Myles Straw, but whether he can hit at even a bare minimum level for a big league starter is still an open question.

If Straw has a bad Spring Training, he could be demoted quickly from his starting role if that performance continues into the regular season. Who will be the fourth, or maybe fifth outfielder to leave Spring Training with the big club, maybe to see considerable time if Straw doesn’t work out.

Watch these players in Spring Training.

  • Chas McCormick
  • Steve Souza
  • Taylor Jones
  • Aledmys Diaz
  • Pedro Leon

McCormick is likely to make the roster as #4 in the outfield as a 25 year old rookie with no previous major league experience. It’s his to lose, but a with a terrible Spring Training, he might.

Steven Souza is coming out of multiple knee injuries and has played only 11 games since 2019. But from 2015-2017 he had a .753 OPS and is only 31 years old. If he’s back he will definitely be a challenger for fourth outfielder.

Taylor Jones got his first cup of tea in the bigs in 2020. He is generally considered a first base/DH but in 2019 he played 60 games at Round Rock in the outfield without an error. It would be interesting to see if he gets playing time in the outfield in Spring Training.

Aledmys Diaz is a lock on the 26 man roster. The question is, will Dusty Baker consider using his #1 utility infielder the way AJ Hinch used Marwin Gonzalez, as a third outfielder when all other options failed. Watch how many innings Diaz gets in the outfield this Spring.

Surely Pedro Leon, the Cuban who signed on to a $4 million bonus, will be one of the most watched players in Spring Training. His talent and potential to be a 5-tool player are undeniable, but how ready is he? How does his experience in the Cuban league translate into MLB? He won’t start the season on the Astros roster, but with a hot Spring Training and success in the minors, there’s a chance we might see him at Minute Maid this year.

Bullpen Competition

There are 15 pitchers with a chance to make the roster and only 13 slots. The five starting pitchers, barring injury, are all but set in stone: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers, Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier.

The following relievers are also set: Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, the newly acquired pitchers Ryne Stanek and Pedro Baez, and Brooks Raley.

Yes, I count Raley. There is every reason to believe that his excellent 2020 was for real. Both his outcomes and his peripherals were solid. I count the former journeyman as another Strom miracle. The Astros seem to think so. They signed him for $2 million+.

So give particular attention to these five contenders for the remaining three positions: Andre Scrubb, Enoli Paredes, Bryan Abreu, Blake Taylor, and newly acquired Steve Cishek. How well these five perform in Spring Training will be a crucial determining factor as to which of these makes the roster.

Second Tier Starters

There’s no way the five starters mentioned above will be able to fulfill all the starting duties for the Astros in a 162 game season. Greinke is old. McCullers has always been fragile and had Tommy John surgery in 2019. Valdez was great in 2020, but was that just a short sample flash in the pan? Urquidy and Javier are both pretty much just out of the minors and have never endured the rigors of a full major league season. Even the sturdiest of starting rotations needs help eventually.

So the Astros will certainly have to dip into their minor league talent stream at some point this year. These potential replacement starters bear watching in Spring Training. Who are they?

  • Forrest Whitley
  • Tyler Ivey
  • Luis Garcia

Whitley’s every appearance will be scrutinized with a microscope. Once baseball’s #4 prospect, he has fallen out of Fangraph’s Top 100. Although many are doing so, at age 23 it is still a little early to whisper the name Mark Appel. But you can’t help think it.

Still, he has all the tools, and maybe this is the year he puts it all together and finds his mojo. He won’t be on the opening day roster, but a strong performance in Spring Training could be a harbinger of his eventual success in 2021.

Don’t be surprised to see Ivey and Garcia at some point this year as well. Garcia got a cup of tea in 2020, and even was the opener in an ALCS game against Tampa Bay. They will be needed. Let’s see if they show readiness in Spring training.

Yordan Alvarez

At age 23 he had surgery on both his knees last summer. Does he have a Hercules body on a pair of chicken legs? If so his career might not last very long. It would be of great comfort during Spring Training if the best hitter on the team can run and do the ordinary things a DH must do without straining his knees.

Carlos Correa

It doesn’t matter what Carlos Correa does in Spring Training, so long as he doesn’t get hurt. Everyone knows Carlos is one of the best shortstops in baseball, he’s only 26, he’s a playoff assassin, and he has emerged as the fiery team leader.

The only thing we care about Carlos this Spring is that the Astros sign him to an extension. Make him an Astro for life.

Do it.

If there are any other narratives that you think are interesting this Spring Training, add them to the comments.