Nov 5, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez (44) reacts after hitting a three run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning in game six of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Spring Training is for stressing out about every little thing, especially with Opening Day three weeks away and anything short of a fifth World Series appearance in seven seasons a monumental disappointment for your favorite team.
Yup, the Astros have spoiled us. (MLB’s postseason is just around the corner, 208 days and counting if you’re planning ahead.)
Now about Spring Training.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve hyped some soon-to-be-forgotten kid for a great March, the F-150 would be paid for.
As Hall of Famer Earl Weaver once said: “Nothing that happens in Fort Myers in March has anything to do with what happens at Fenway Park in September.”
Earl had a way with words and wasn’t the most patient man on earth. I’m not getting into the time someone walked into his office and saw he’d taken a young reporter’s tape record from her and was interviewing himself.
“Now, you want to me about the pitching,” he said into the recorder. “OK, we’ve got Boddicker, we’ve got Flanagan …”
All things considered, the Astros have had a quiet spring in that nothing disastrous has happened.
But there are worries, and the closer Opening Day gets without solutions, the greater the concerns.
Again, Earl would want me to remind you the postseason is 208 days away. What we really know at this point is almost nothing.
Keep an eye on four things:
1. Yordan Alvarez’s sore hand
Everything else is insignificant compared to the Astros’ best offensive player having yet to swing a bat in an exhibition game. New general manager Dana Brown has been more forthcoming with injury information than his predecessors, so we should take him at his word when he says he’s optimistic Alvarez will be in the Opening Day lineup.
But that’s just one step. Alvarez was bothered by a sore hand (or hands) last season, and the issue didn’t go away during the offseason. The Astros have not revealed the problem, or even if they know precisely what the problem is.
This will be on Dusty Baker and the coaching staff and medical people to monitor all season long. If Alvarez needs breaks, so be it. The goal is to have him healthy in October.
2. Hunter Brown’s control
He has walked five batters in two spring innings and thrown just 38 of 73 pitches for strikes. Those numbers would not necessarily set off alarm bells except that it’s a continuation of a problem when he averaged 4.4 walks per nine innings in three minor league seasons.
His control got away from him at times after joining the Astros in September, but it was overshadowed by his overall dominance (0.75 ERA in 10 appearances, including the postseason).
There’s more urgency to get him straightened out since he’ll replace injured Lance McCullers in the rotation. The Astros hope options emerge from the minor leagues among a group that includes Forrest Whitley, Colton Gordon, and Spencer Arrighetti.
3. Tucker, Valdez contracts
Brown said Thursday was a soft deadline for getting extensions done. Considering that the Astros have control of both of them for the next three seasons, what’s the rush?
This is a delicate thing that can negatively impact a clubhouse. Jim Crane has had difficulty retaining free agents that wanted market-value contracts.
How he handles these two will send a message to players up and down the food chain. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Crane because the Astros have rolled on down the road even after the departures of George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa, etc.
These extensions are especially difficult because the negotiation is about finding a middle ground in guaranteeing immediate financial security in exchange for a discount for some of the free-agent years.
Tucker just lost an arbitration hearing to the Astros, and those defeats can create all sorts of bad blood. It would not seem to be a pressing issue at the moment, but the closer Valdez and Tucker get to their free agency, the more expensive the deal is likely to be. Stay tuned.
The Mariners are capable of challenging the Astros in the AL West. The Yankees and Blue Jays are very good. The Rangers and Orioles are getting better. In the National League, the Mets, Padres, Braves, Dodgers, and Phillies are all good enough to win the World Series.
But the Astros are still the team to beat. Fans in at least two dozen cities would love to have the Astros’ problems. The Local Nine was the best team last season and appear to be the best team this season. But go back and check out how close their 11 postseason victories were. The difference between winning and losing is microscopic. That’s why it’s OK to stress now.