Whether due to injuries, personal matters, or the World Baseball Classic, the Astros have had plenty of playing time to distribute among their prospects at camp. Someone has to absorb the innings or at-bats left behind. Based on the Spring Training leaderboards, I think that a few prospects have likely made a positive impression on the organization for the upcoming 2023 season. Sooner or later, these same players will be called upon in the event of injuries or underperformance. Forrest Whitley, for example, has probably created a bit of optimism even despite his allowing four runs in 6 2⁄3 innings and being a recent option to minor league camp.
But on the hitting side of the equation, there hasn’t been a more impressive player in camp than Justin Dirden, the age-25 outfielder who could force his way onto the 40-man roster at some point in 2023. Fresh off a season when he performed quite well with noticeable power in Double-A Corpus Christi (157 wRC+) but struggled in his 32-game stretch with Triple-A Sugar Land (73 wRC+), the ninth-ranked prospect in the organization, according to MLB.com, has turned some heads in camp. With four of his five base hits going for extra bases, which includes two home runs, the left-handed hitter has taken advantage of Michael Brantley’s and Yordan Alvarez’s extended absences in the lineup thus far. A small sample, yes, but the quality of his batted ball results matters, even if Statcast data like Barrel rates isn’t presently available for the Astros. One doesn’t have four extra-base hits in 15 at-bats without quality contact involved.
With Brantley expected to miss Opening Day, there is a backup position to fill in the outfield as Dusty Baker will likely have Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick, and Jake Meyers as his primary starters. While Alvarez and Mauricio Dubón are also involved in the outfield mix, odds are that the former is the primary DH to start the season, with the latter likely fulfilling a backup infield role. While it isn’t a guarantee that Dirden will make the Opening Day roster, his performance has at least put him in the conversation. Plus, it helps that Dirden can play all three outfield positions and bats left-handed, which can be a valuable option off the bench.
If Dirden doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, or his inclusion for Opening Day is relatively brief, it is clear his status is rising in the organization. After all, there is plenty to like about his profile, specifically his left-handed power along with defensive versatility in the outfield. While he is prone to strikeouts (28.2% in Sugar Land), the power threat from the left side is tantalizing. If his pitch recognition skills improve even by a fair margin, this downside risk is lessened.
Ultimately, once Brantley returns, Dirden could also possibly apply pressure to McCormick and Meyers in the event they underperform. While it isn’t optimal to draw too many firm conclusions from a relatively small sample in Spring Training, Dirden’s performance presents hope that he could become a contributor to the active roster sooner rather than later.