Richard Justice: 5 things to keep an eye on as the Astros begin spring training.

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 12: Framber Valdez #59 of the Houston Astros pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the fifth inning at Comerica Park on September 12, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Richard Justice: 5 things to keep an eye on as the Astros begin spring training.

    On this first day of spring training, the Astros are baseball’s best team, and that’s what we’ve come to expect from the sport’s smartest and most efficient organization.

   Their roster is virtually set even before the first team meeting. Unless they’re decimated by injuries, they’ll make a seventh straight playoff appearance and be nicely positioned to return to the World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons.

   Remember what it used to be like around here? In the Astros’ first 42 seasons, they won exactly zero postseason series. In the last six seasons, these Astros have won 23 more regular-season games than any other American League team.

   Remarkably, they’ve sustained this success despite losing four superstars to free agency: George Springer, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole.

   Last season, the Astros had MLB’s second-best regular season record and its eighth-highest payroll. This is a tribute to a player development system that has plugged hole after hole.

   On Opening Day, the Astros will not have a single 30-year-old starter in their rotation. Meanwhile, their three best offensive players—Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Jeremy Pena—are 25, 26, and 25.

   This roster—all except Michael Brantley and Martín Maldonado—is under club control for the next two seasons, and in a nutshell, that’s the genius of what team owner Jim Crane has built.

   So ….

   Here are five things to keep an eye on between now and the March 30 Opening Day contest against the White Sox:

   1. Job one: staying healthy.

   Brantley’s surgically repaired shoulder tops the list, but let’s not overthink things: If the Astros avoid a catastrophic injury, they’ll open the season favored to win the American League West for the sixth time in seven seasons. Even though the Mariners are very good—remember the nail-biting division series?—and the Rangers have spent almost $1 billion on free agents the last two offseasons, the Astros are still better than both of ‘em.

   2. Pitching depth.

   They’ll open the season with six starting pitchers: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy, and Hunter Brown. No other team has this much quality starting pitching. Spring training will be about keeping them all healthy and hoping their top pitching prospects—Forrest Whitley, Jayden Murray, Jaime Melendez—emerge as in-season options. McCullers was excellent after making his 2022 season debut in August. If his right elbow holds up, he makes an excellent rotation even better.

   3. Center field

   Chas McCormick earned the right to open the spring as the starter, but this is the lone starting spot that’s up for grabs. Jake Meyers will have the opportunity to prove last season’s struggles were a fluke. Two top prospects—Justin Dirden and Pedro Leon—will get long looks in the outfield as well.

   4. Is there another Jeremy Peña in camp?

   The Astros do not have a good minor league system, and fixing that is one of new general manager Dana Brown’s top priorities. In that way, the Astros do not have the depth to make an impact deadline trade. That said, though, the farm system has produced enough talent to keep the train moving down the track. Few teams have as much homegrown talent as the Astros have in Tucker, Peña, reliever Bryan Abreu and all those young starting pitchers. The Astros hope to see another Brown or Peña emerge among a group that includes Dirden, Whitley, etc.

   5. Spring position battles

   Other than center field, there are none. The Astros are set at eight everyday position spots and the pitching staff. If there’s a question, it’s Hunter Brown’s role. If everyone is healthy, he’s the sixth starter, and there’ll be a decision on whether to use him in relief (unlikely) or send him to Sugar Land to work as a starter (likely). But it’s easy to project things at the beginning of spring, and if the Astros have their way, it will be a nice, boring camp.

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