Justin Dirden has been impressive this spring. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
Less than three weeks to Opening Day. I’m not yet tingly, but getting there! Next week we get the NCAA Tournament as a delightful bridge to help us toward March 30. More on that next week. For now, Astros angles…
I find new General Manager Dana Brown’s general candor to date wonderfully refreshing. Be it contract negotiations, player development philosophy, or his need to not “blow the draft,” Brown conveys a confident, straight-shooting demeanor. We have to see how that holds up, but to this point he comes across impressively. Of course ultimately what matters is how the ballclub performs under his stewardship.
Brown getting a five-year contract done with Cristian Javier was nice, but it doesn’t mean it’s a failure if the Astros don’t get long term extensions done now with the more accomplished Framber Valdez and Kyle Tucker. While any fan hand-wringing on the subject is understood, it’s just not a big deal with both Valdez and Tucker under team control for three more seasons. With Javier getting 64 million dollars over five years, would Framber take 80 over five (if offered)? The rumble re: Tucker is that he seeks a decade long deal. That would be talking in the 200 million dollar range. The Astros are understandably loath to going as long as 10 years.
World Baseball Classic
A dozen members of the Astros’ organization are off to play in the World Baseball Classic, including eight pitchers. Coming off a by far career-heaviest workload in 2022, Valdez wisely decided to honor the Astros’ request that he skip the WBC. Framber can root for his native Dominican Republic which without him is still loaded with key Astros’ pitchers. Javier, Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, and Rafael Montero all will wear the DR’s red, white and blue. So will Ronel Blanco. Jeremy Pena is one of the DR shortstops.
All the absences open up some additional spring training playing time for others, but with the Astros’ roster a pretty stacked deck, the additional playing time doesn’t give much chance for guys to deal their way on to the season opening 26 man roster. Martin Maldonado is with the Puerto Rican team, so Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz can split most of the catcher reps as they battle for the complementary catcher role. It’s more than a backup role since Maldonado shouldn’t start many more than 100 of the 162 games. It’s still very limited data to judge. Lee is thus far two for 10 with a double and a home run. Diaz is scuffling at one for 12. C.J. Stubbs has essentially no chance of getting the spot, but has impressed with five hits in 10 at bats. And if you’re wondering, yes, C.J. Stubbs is the brother of former Astros’ catching prospect Garrett Stubbs.
With the odds seemingly tipping toward Michael Brantley not quite being ready for Opening Day, the door is cracked open a little bit further for outfielder Justin Dirden. Presuming the Astros will start the season carrying 13 pitchers on the roster, the bench is four players with those spots seemingly already earmarked: the number two catcher, utility men Mauricio Dubon and David Hensley, and Jake Meyers. If Brantley opens the season on the injured list, Dirden could make the big league squad.
With Lance McCullers laid up again for who knows how long, additional opportunity and scrutiny go to rookie fifth starter Hunter Brown who had a negative outing this week. Brown failed to get an out after the first meeting, walking three batters in a row to start the second before getting the hook on Monday. No cause for alarm but a reminder that Brown had inconsistent command throughout his college and minor league careers. The Astros open the regular season playing eight consecutive days so they will need five starters the first time through. Brown’s first start should come in game number five, in which he'd face the Detroit Tigers who had an absolutely pathetic offense in 2022 and did nothing substantial to upgrade it in the offseason. Good luck A.J. Hinch. You'll need it.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:
As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.