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Three Things To Watch For in Spring Training

There is plenty to watch for this Spring, but a few things stand out to this author more than others...

MLB: MAR 21 Spring Training - Cardinals at Nationals Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

(Editor’s note) This is the first of several articles anticipating Spring Training. The Astros’ pichers and catchers reported yesterday, and the position players are scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Soon, Astros fans…or really, any fans of baseball. The long winter will give way to Spring Baseball. In mere days, pitchers and catchers report to their respective fields in Florida or Arizona. Position players will follow shortly afterward. Even with the World Baseball Classic to spice things up, spring ball is really about one thing and one thing only: Getting ready for the regular season.

For the Astros, they enter spring training for the second time in franchise history as defending champions. While the good vibes from a stellar 106-win regular season and historically dominant post-season run do not easily fade into the background for fans, the players know that 2022 won’t mean anything once “Play Ball” is called for 2023. Success in spring ball does not portend regular or post-season success, but perhaps it can offer a glimpse as to what may come to pass on the field in late spring/summer/fall.

To that end, here are three things to watch for during Spring Training:

2022 World Series Game 3: Houston Astros v. Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Steve Boyle/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Wither Lance McCullers? : Seems like only a year ago we asked this question. Unfortunately, the lockout did much to derail his rehab from a post-season flexor injury. The Astros did not figure to see what McCullers could provide until later in the season, making him one of many pitching questions for the Astros. In 2023, McCullers once again tops the list for pitching concerns. This time not so much from injury, although injury concerns always surround him.

Even as the Astros lost Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, most peg the Astros to possess the deepest starting rotation in the majors. A linchpin of that assessment rests on McCullers pitching to his potential. In the limited starts he had in the regular season, he performed decently enough [4-2 in 8 starts, 2.27 ERA, 1.24 WHIP]. If nothing else, he showed enough for Baker to make him the #3 starter in the ALDS. In the marathon 18-inning series clincher, he provided six innings of no-run ball. In the ALCS, McCullers took the ball in Game 4. This time, he labored through five innings, surrendering three runs. Far from dominant, but enough to take down the Yankees in a come-from-behind win to sweep the ALCS.

However, the World Series proved most unkind to McCullers. Tagged as the Game 3 starter, McCullers set all kinds of pitching records…the wrong kind. 7 ERs over five innings, all of them surrendered via 5 HRs. To make matters worse, McCullers may have tipped his pitches which the Phillies appeared to openly pick up on (McCullers vehemently denies this). While post-season struggles do not always mean a follow-on down season (see 2021 World Series Fambar Valdez), the idea of tipping pitches and worrying too much about mechanics can throw off a pitcher, with poor results [think 2018 Yu Darvish].

Can McCullers show that the WS Series Game 3 was an aberration, and he can return to his top-of-the-rotation form? Spring training won’t answer all of those questions, but a good spring (and a healthy one) will go a long way to alleviate those concerns.

Houston Astros vs Philadelphia Phillies, 2022 World Series Set Number: X164229 TK1

Jeremy Peña, The Sequel: This time last year, no Astros player was under the proverbial microscope more than shortstop Jeremy Peña. Anointed the starter with the loss of Carlos Correa, he needed to not only step into the starting role on a legit contending team but he needed to ball out once in that role. Generally, Peña answered the mail in the regular season, with a strong start to the season, followed by a lag due to injury and some of the rookie wall, followed by a solid finish at the end of the season.

Yet, it was the post-season where Peña shined. He provided timely hits in the ALDS, including the series-clinching HR. He won ALCS and WS MVP awards with his stellar hitting and solid defense. Peña quickly took his place as Houston’s latest sporting hero. Now, he enters 2023 as one of the Astros’ key stars.

It is one thing to exceed expectations. It is another to meet them. Can he continue to hit and play at the level we saw at key points during the 2022 regular and post-season? Will he remain focused and grounded, or will he suffer a sophomore slump? Does the fame go to his head? Spring may not answer all of those questions, but it will offer a chance for Peña to show that he is no one-year wonder and that he can evolve into one of MLB's best.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Next Arm Up: The 2022 Astros will go down in MLB history as possessing one of the most complete pitching staffs of all time. Starters and bullpen…all threw with power and precision. They rated second in the league in ERA and set multiple post-season records for their pitching prowess. Save Verlander, most of the same cast and crew return to run it back. Yet, there is always room for the next new arm. Does Brown take his place as the next Astros’ star thrower? Is there someone in the AAA or lower rungs that emerge to have the arm that the Majors can’t ignore? What of Whitley? Does he finally put it together and join the major league roster?

These are but three areas to watch. So many more plot lines will emerge. Who emerges to be the lead reserve position player? Will there be a shake-up in the catchers? Does something happen in Spring Training to force an emergency signing, or does Dana Brown find that diamond in the rough to further solidify the roster?

It will also be nice to see all the other fanbases show their respect for the champion Astros, taking the time to appreciate the greatness, toughness, and sheer ability to out-ball the competition. It will be great…(loud, maniacal laughter). I almost typed that last part out with a straight face. Oh, who am I kidding? The other fanbases will still irrationally boo and jeer the Astros, no matter who is playing. That aside, I look forward to seeing how those other three areas play out in the Spring as the Astros gear up for yet another season.