Astros Week: Michael Brantley, AT&T Sports Southwest's Money Problem and Pitch Clock Chaos

Uncle Mike could be back for opening day.
Uncle Mike could be back for opening day. Photo by Jack Gorman
The Astros are in the throes of Spring Training at their facilities in West Palm Beach, Florida. A handful of games in, we don't know much other than Lance McCullers has already been ruled out for the season opener and the pitch clock moves...really fast.

It's so early and pitchers are SO far ahead of hitters — nevermind the fact that most pitchers won't even trot out their A-plus stuff until opening day — it is difficult to figure out what is going on. At this point, minor leaguers who stand out may just be having a decent week. That's why they do this and why last year's lockout-shortened spring led to issues for players out of the gate.

Here's what we do know.

Michael Brantley is close.

"Uncle Mike," who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, appears to be ahead of schedule. Dusty Baker said he saw Brantley with a shirt off and asked him, "Where did you get that six pack, 7-11?" While he hasn't played yet, he is reportedly close to resuming normal workouts and is expected to be ready on opening day, something many thought unlikely over the winter. If Brantley can even come back to 70 percent of what he was before the injury, when you consider the addition of Jose Abreu, this lineup looks to be very tough for opposing pitchers. Brantley will also give them options in the outfield, at DH and, apparently, at first base where he has seen a little time this spring.

The pitch clock is wild, man.

We all knew there would be some crazy moments in the spring and perhaps bleeding into the early part of the season thanks to the pitch clock, but most of us assumed it would be for the pitchers. In fact, the hitters seem to have the hardest time adjusting so far. According to MLB, a player must be in the box, set and alert to the pitcher. That alleged lack of alertness has already cost one Astro an out this spring and other batters clearly look rushed in the box. Kyle Tucker said he felt as much. Considering some of the routines of veterans when they step up to the plate, this is clearly going to take some getting used to. For fans, you better not look away because stuff happens fast now. Even broadcasts are loathe to show too many instant replays for fear of missing the next few pitches.

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Alex Bregman should be all smiles considering the deal Manny Machado just signed.
Photo by Jack Gorman
Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker just saw their prices go up.

With news that third baseman Manny Machado of the Padres just re-upped with San Diego for 11 years and $350 million, no doubt "ca ching!" started echoing through the ears of guys like Bregman and Tucker, who are both due for extensions soon. Machado was already under a 10-year contract, but had an opt out after this season. San Diego threw Fort Knox at Machado to keep him with the Padres. He'll be 41 when the contract finally expires. The Astros have been adamant about building from within and not giving contracts longer than six years to their players, but teams like the Padres and Mets have begun to change the calculus for some teams.

For Bregman, who was recently asked if he wanted to re-sign with the Astros after GM Dana Brown said as much in a press conference, it makes total sense he will want to explore free agency when his deal expires in two seasons. He will be just 30 and in the prime of his career looking to cash in. It's no wonder he was coy when responding to those questions. As for Tucker, he has two more years of arbitration, but the Astros are keen to get him under contract even if he may want more years than they are willing to give.

AT&T SportsNet Southwest might file for bankruptcy.

The regional sports network that carries the Astros (and the Rockets) is in trouble as their parent company Warner Bros. Discovery told teams they would be pulling out of the sports network business and wants the teams to take over broadcasting responsibilities. The teams have contracts with local cable/satellite providers to carry games through 2032, but how teams will pay for the production of the broadcasts is a whole other matter.

This is not the first RSN to go through these issues. Bally's, which broadcasts a significant number of teams across the country, is going belly up and we witnessed what happened with Comcast SportsNet Houston just a few years ago. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said getting teams under the MLB broadcasting umbrella is a priority so they can take advantage of streaming and other outlets — as well as lift the scourge of regional blackouts — but untangling the web of local and regional contracts will likely take years.

Fortunately, the games will stay on local broadcast networks though they may move to a different channel. Stay tuned...if you can.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke