THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

Examining the Houston Astros latest moves and what they reveal

Examining the Houston Astros latest moves and what they reveal
Yainer Diaz should be a big factor early in the season. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.

Opening Day for the Houston Astros is right around the corner and the reigning champions of the baseball world have set their final roster.

Three players whose names stood on the final 26 were catchers Yainer Diaz and Cesar Salazar as well as right-handed pitcher Ronel Blanco, and outfielder Corey Julks.

While some might be surprised to see their names on the main roster, the Astros’ logic behind it reveals the focus is not just on this season, but for the future as well.

Let’s start with Diaz and Salazar, who both edged out prospect Korey Lee for the backup catcher position. Lee was the Astros’ first-round selection in the 2019 draft. His numbers during 2023 spring training were .258/.343/.827 with two home runs and six RBI in 31 at-bats.

In comparison, Diaz’s slashes were .325/.317/.892 with one home run and eight RBI in 40 at-bats. Salazar put together a slash line of .286/.407/.978 with a home run and seven RBI in 21 at-bats.

While not making the opening day roster is a blow for Lee, Houston general manager Dana Brown said it is not necessarily a reflection of where the organization views him as a player.

Brown said it is vital for Lee to play every single day being a first-round sound selection. That would not be the case had he made the Astros roster, with Martin Maldonaldo solidified as the starter.

“He's like a big time, frontline guy with some power, so you can't have guys like that sitting on the bench at the Major League level, so you have to get him playing time,” Brown said. “Whereas Salazar is a backup catcher, and he fills that role better.”

While that argument works regarding Salazar, it will be interesting to see what Diaz does with his roster spot. Both Diaz and Lee are 24 years old. Diaz made his MLB debut last September and appeared in only six games for the Astros.

As for Blanco, the right-handed pitcher put together an impressive spring training for Houston that earned him his spot in the bullpen. The Dominican Republic native pitched 14 innings, giving up only one run. He put together a 0.64 ERA.

Blanco is going to be raring to showcase to Houston his improvement from last season. He had a rough 2022 season in the big leagues, appearing in only seven games and giving up five runs and accumulating a 7.11 ERA.

The 29-year-old beat out pitchers like Brandon Bielak and veteran Austin Davis to make the team’s crowded bullpen. For Blanco, it is all about producing in the majors.

One final player to spotlight is Corey Julks. He came as a bit of a surprise as well, with many thinking Justin Dirden's impressive spring could get him a spot on the roster. But Julks has more experience and posted a big year with the Space Cowboys in 2022. The former University of Houston Cougar crushed 31 home runs for Sugar Land last year and had a slash line this spring of .275/.318/.550 with 2 homers.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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