THE PALLILOG

Here’s how roster pressures, pace of play will uniquely impact Astros outfield

Kyle Tucker is poised to have a big year. Composite image by Jack Brame.

It’s just one week of spring training games but so far, so GREAT for Major League Baseball’s pace of play rules changes. Of course there has been grousing from some over the pitch clock. 100% customer or player satisfaction is impossible. Most people are creatures of habit and for some change is more difficult than for others. Well, suck it up buttercups! In AAA last year the average game length dropped 25 minutes. So far in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues average game length has dropped by more than 20 minutes.

Time cops

For the Astros the apparent most significant adjustment to be made was for Luis Garcia with his elaborate windup banished to the archives. Garcia had zero problem adapting in his first outing. Kyle Tucker didn’t go on a rant but he’s the Astro who has expressed the most dissatisfaction about the timer to this point. One suspects he’ll be just fine. Maybe Tucker is a tad grumpy after losing his salary arbitration case. Think positively Tuck. 20-minute shorter average game lengths get you home sooner to your new fiance! Batters are allowed one timeout per plate appearance. That’s plenty. Stepping out of the box, adjusting batting gloves, rubbing more dirt on one’s hands, or contemplating the meaning of life after every or every other pitch is a tedious waste of time.

Perhaps a cranky Kyle will be extra locked in to start the season as he tries to strengthen his case for a contract extension worth a couple hundred million dollars. The last two years Tucker has been awful out of the gate. In 2021 he finished April with a woeful .181 batting average and a feeble .610 OPS. After going 0 for four on May 1, Tucker then played at an MVP level the rest of the season, batting .324 with a .996 OPS. Last year’s start wasn’t as miserable but was not better by leaps and bounds, with Tucker waking up May 1 with the average at .224 and OPS at .685. While his 2022 start wasn’t as bad as 2021, the rest of Tucker’s 2022 wasn’t nearly as good as the rest of his 2021 was. From May 1 of last season Tucker hit .263 with an .828 OPS which is plenty good but not 30 million dollars per season worth of production. Tucker is 26 and should be at about the peak of his physical talents. With merely a solid first month of the season at the plate, Tucker could have a monster 2023. He’ll be boosted by the maybe 10 hits he’ll pick up on balls he smashes that aren’t turned into outs by now banned defensive shifts.

Potential hidden bonus of snappier pace of play rules: maybe the wave gets washed away. Though somehow I doubt it.

Who's standing out so far this spring?

With time to kill and space to fill, the media inevitably overplays some spring training stories. Justin Dirden has six at bats so far this spring. Two of them resulted in home runs. He’s not the second coming of Kyle Tucker but see if this sounds familiar: Bats left, throws right. Plays right field but can slide over to center. Notable power. Turns 26 years old in 2023. Here’s a bit of a difference: Tucker’s signing bonus as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft, four million dollars. Dirden’s bonus as an undrafted free agent in 2020, 20 thousand. Injuries, a transfer year, and COVID ending the 2020 college baseball season early held Dirden to a paltry total of 79 games played over five years. But in the time he did play at Southeast Missouri State, Dirden mashed. The Astros signed him and then Dirden mashed in the low minors. Last year he scuffled at AAA Sugar Land, but that was after earning a promotion for his mashing at AA Corpus Christi. If Dirden becomes a legit sleeper to make the Astros, one factor in his favor is the left-handed hitting. Chas McCormick bats right and last year was spectacular against left-handed pitching, awful vs. righties. Dirden offers a platoon possibility that Jake Meyers and Mauricio Dubon do not.

College baseball in H-town

Minute Maid Park this weekend sees its last game action before the Astros get home from spring training. It’s a typically strong field for the annual Shriners Children’s Classic. TCU, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech are all in the Top 25 and here this weekend. Rice is the lone unranked Texas school in the field. Louisville is in the top 25. The Cardinals and Michigan fill out the six team field.

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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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