It's been a really, really long offseason despite the fact that the Astros played until literally the last day of the offseason. Obviously the news has been dominated by a series of scandals culminating with the commissioners' report that the Astros cheated. As spring training opened, it only seemed to get worse with players weighing in on the controversy and fans booing heartily.
But, in case we had forgotten, there is actual baseball to be played and the Astros are already a couple games into their preseason including an 11-1 drubbing of the Tigers on Monday. Plenty of questions linger around training camp like how new veteran manager Dusty Baker will handle all the off-the-field complications (he'll do fine on the field). But, for the moment, let's consider some of the story lines from between the lines.
Kyle Tucker vs. Josh Reddick
With left field (Michael Brantley) and center (George Springer) taken, the big question is who will become the everyday starter in right. Josh Reddick got most of the opportunities last season and is not only a veteran — something the old school Baker appreciates — but an outstanding defender. Tucker, on the other hand, is the young, talented prospect who finally began to get appearances last season. In the long run, the Astros are betting Tucker is their guy, but will it be this season?
While Baker may prefer veterans, Tucker has enough time under his belt to merit more than a cursory glance from his skipper. He also has a chance to add more hitting power to an already formidable lineup, something Reddick is unlikely to provide. If, however, he starts slow, don't be surprised to see Reddick getting more opportunities to start the season even if fans may clamor for Tucker.
Can Lance McCullers, Jr. come back from another injury?
McCullers has struggled with injuries nearly ever season. His devastating curve ball doesn't do much good when he is in the training room. This year is likely the most important of his career. Not only will it go a long way toward determining how much further he can go as a starting pitcher in baseball, his job as the third starter will be critical now that Gerrit Cole is gone.
McCullers also plays with a chip on his shoulder and some intensity on the mound. This could be the season when that plays an important role. If this club house is to survive the grilling it will undoubtedly get, this team will need a bunker mentality and McCullers is a guy that can certainly help provide that.
How much time will Yordan Alvarez get in the field?
There is no question Alvarez will spend most of his season at the DH spot for the 'Stros. With his bat, they are going to want him in the lineup as often as possible and, for the moment, that where he is at his best. But the more they can work him into the field, the better. The Astros have always made use of the DH as a way to give players a day off while keeping them in the lineup. Alvarez keeps that option closed most of the time.
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Additionally, getting Alvarez into the field means giving him more options to contribute, something he surely wants and will greatly benefit the team in the long run. Expect him to get time in the outfield, but we would sure love to seem him get a few chances at first as well.
Who is the fifth starter?
For most teams, worrying about a fifth starter is a luxury. The Astros have been so good in recent years, most of their "problems" are things that the rest of baseball doesn't think much about. This season, it's the fifth starter. With Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, McCullers and Jose Urquidy seeming capable of providing a very solid one-through-four rotation, perhaps the only thing to be concerned with at this point is number five.
Pitching coach Brent Strom has already said Brad Peacock will likely remain in the bullpen leaving three guys to fight for the last spot: hard throwing Josh James, left Framber Valdez and newcomer Austin Pruitt, who has surged since being acquired in January. Valdez might prove too valuable as a left-handed arm out of the bullpen, which leaves James and Pruitt. For both, the main issue will be control. James has struggled with it while Pruitt has excelled. That might be the difference even if James has much more upside.