Richard Justice: Astros were hoping their best youngsters would play their way onto the roster this spring. They have

Mar 12, 2023; West Palm Beach, Florida, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter David Hensley (17) hits a single against the Miami Marlins during the second inning at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Astros were hoping their best youngsters would play their way onto the roster this spring. They have

   David Hensley has made the statement the Astros hoped he would make this spring: He belongs in the big leagues.

   He has just 34 major league plate appearances under his belt, but he hit well at the two highest levels of the minor leagues and is having a solid spring training.

   He can also play multiple positions and has positioned himself to be standing on the first base line when the Astros are introduced on Opening Day. Rookie right-hander Hunter Brown will be there too, along with one of two rookie catchers, Korey Lee or Yainer Díaz.

   Outfielder Justin Dirden has also shown the Astros everything they hoped to see this spring. He may not make the Opening Day roster, but he almost certainly will make his debut at some point this season. 

   These four—Hensley, Brown, Lee, Díaz—are the sure things. They represent the genius of the Astros.

   To continue to win and win and win some more while turning over the roster, making difficult decisions, and keeping the payroll manageable is a reflection of a franchise that is among the best run in professional sports.

    The Astros had MLB’s second-best regular-season record and its eighth-highest payroll in 2022. George Springer and Carlos Correa will have a place in the hearts and minds of Astros fans forever.

   Some of us—shuffles feet, coughs loudly—believed Springer’s departure would be a killer for both the culture in the clubhouse and the product on the field.

   Neither happened, which is a tribute to the core group—Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, Martín Maldonado—and to the type of players that have been brought into the organization (Michael Brantley, José Abreu, Ryan Pressly).

   Creating that culture is impossible for those of us on the outside to fully understand. What was evident was that the players bonded with one another and that they both liked and respected the Astros managers, A.J. Hinch and Dusty Baker.

   Astros owner Jim Crane’s hiring of Baker to replace Hinch after the sign-stealing scandal broke after the 2019 season was among the smartest decisions he has made.

   Baker is one of those people seemingly born to lead a group. With so much hatred of the Astros swirling inside and outside the game, Crane added, not just a leader, but one of the game’s most beloved gentlemen.

   Into the chaos of the moment stepped a calming voice, someone that has seen and done pretty much everything in his six decades in the sport.

   The Chronicle’s Chandler Rome reported that on the Astros’ off-day, he took three of his young guys—Hensley, Lee, and Brown—on a fishing trip. All of them love to fish, but in this case, a larger purpose was served.

   All of them got to know one another better, and during the course of a long season, the players and managers will be more comfortable having conversations that can be difficult.

    In Baker, they know they have someone that only wants what’s best for the team and what’s best for them.

   Once when the Rockets turned their point guard position over to an Oregon rookie named Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier spoke some weeks after about his unseen impact on the team.

   “His enthusiasm and his happiness about being here was a reminder to all the veterans how lucky we are to be doing this for a living,” Battier said. “Sometimes in the grind of a season, you forget.”

   That’s a side benefit to continuing to have young players on the roster. Last season’s World Series champions had an everyday lineup that included three 25-and-unders: Yordan Alvarez, Jeremy Peña, and Kyle Tucker. Three more were on the pitching staff: Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Bryan Abreu.

   The average age of that 2022 roster was 29, 11th-highest in the major leagues. That number will decrease after an off-season in which the Astros did not re-sign their two oldest players, Justin Verlander (40) and Yuli Gurriel (38).

    Now about the pitching. If there’s any angst, it’s here as the Astros map out a season in which their rotation depth will almost certainly be tested with four proven veterans and Brown.

   After those five, who would gets the baseball? Right-hander Forrest Whitley, once the best pitching prospect on the planet, took a step forward this spring and will attempt to establish himself at Triple-A Sugar Land. Another right-hander, Jayden Murray, has had a solid spring and could be positioned to contribute.

    The Astros’ minor league system has done such a terrific job of producing pitching in recent seasons that it’s easy to take it for granted. It shouldn’t be. Let’s hope they spoil us again this season.

All are primed to make their first opening-day roster. Hensley is inching toward a spot on the bench as Houston’s utility man. Brown should begin the season in the starting rotation, while Lee is the front-runner to back up Martín Maldonado. 

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