Richard Justice: Dusty will be rearranging his batting order until Altuve returns. Spoiler: There are no bad options

Feb 20, 2023; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker watches drills during spring training workouts at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Dusty will be rearranging his batting order until Altuve returns. Spoiler: There are no bad options

   Dusty Baker’s second-most interesting decision will be figuring out who to play at second base until Jose Altuve returns.

   David Hensley was in Baker’s starting lineup for Games 3 and 5 of the World Series, which is about the most ringing endorsement a player can have.

   He has just 34 regular-season big league plate appearances, but passed them with flying colors: .345 batting average and 1.027 on-base-plus slugging.

   Mauricio Dubón is Baker’s other option. He has a .786 OPS against left-handed pitching, which creates some platoon possibilities. Baker doesn’t always abide by the numbers, but there are advantages to keeping Dubón in the mix.

   So there.

   Baker’s genius has many layers, but putting players in position to succeed and giving them the confidence to believe they can succeed are near the top of the list.

   Regardless of who plays second, Baker will make sure to drill into them that they aren’t replacing Jose Altuve, an eight-time All-Star, three-time batting champ, and 2017 American League Most Valuable Player.

   The Astros may never have another player this good, certainly not one as unique as Altuve. At 32, he’s already right there alongside Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio as the greatest players in Astros history.

   Long after Altuve has played his final game, we’ll be telling our grandkids how lucky we were to have watched him play. The joy he gets from wearing the uniform is right there with Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, and others.

   To say that David Hensley and Mauricio Dubón will not replace Jose Altuve is too narrow a statement. No one, ever, may replace him when he has played his final game.

   Now for the interesting part: the batting order. Baker appears to have three candidates: Jeremy Peña, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker.

   Again, though, it would be a mistake to guess along with Baker. All we know for sure is that if Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez are healthy, they’ll have the Nos. 2 and 3 slots in the order.

   Peña excelled hitting second down the stretch last season, but Brantley’s 14 seasons and career .356 on-base average trump every other argument in Baker’s mind.

   As for the other three, there are no wrong answers, and that’s one of the reasons the Astros are trying to play in the World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons.

    Peña would give the Astros some of the quick-strike power that has become part of Altuve’s game. (His 12 leadoff home runs last season tried George Springer’s franchise record.)

   His rookie season ended with a flourish, with him named the Most Valuable Player of both the ALCS and World Series. He was also solid in September, hitting .278 with a .790 OPS.

   He batted just .218 in July and August as pitchers fed him a steady diet of off-speed and breaking pitches. There was also some concern that his relentless work ethic was wearing him down.

   Peña’s rebound came after chats with Alex Bregman regarding pitch recognition and mechanics were discussed. That success carried over into a postseason in which he batted .345 with five doubles and four home runs.

   Inserting him at the top of the order will offer a quick study in how pitchers attack him this season and if last season’s late success carries over into the season.

   As for the two other choices—again, it’s a mistake to predict what Baker will do—they’re a reminder of how good and how deep the Astros are.

   Tucker’s last two seasons have put him among baseball’s elite players with 60 home runs and a .344 OBP. He was 25 for 29 in stolen bases last season, so he’s plenty capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup.

   Bregman is capable of putting up similar numbers when he’s healthy. That didn’t happen last season until around the All-Star Break, and he had an .894 OPS, 12 home runs, and 18 doubles in his last 67 regular-season games. He was even better in the postseason with a .948 OPS.

   Baker may ask for feedback from his players, and all are likely to tell him they’re comfortable anywhere in the lineup. That’s not always the case, especially when replacing a star of this magnitude is the assignment.

   But the Astros have star power in every corner of their clubhouse. It’s one thing to ask someone to replace a future Hall of Famer, but the three options could all be in that conversation as well someday.

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  • Tucker is the obvious choice. George Springer would attest to that!

  • Is it time for Pedro Leon?

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