Astros Report

With Astros spring training in full swing, here are 5 important storylines to watch for

Can Forrest Whitley take a step forward this spring? Composite image by Jack Brame.

After a stellar 2022 season, the Houston Astros have retuned to West Palm Beach to defend their crown and go on another championship run.

Even though spring training just started, there are plenty of interesting storylines Astros fans should keep their eyes on.

Lance McCuller's injury

After a bullpen session, Lance McCullers Jr. informed the team he will not be ready for Opening Day due to a strained muscle in his pitching arm. An MRI showed no structural damage, but the veteran pitcher will not throw a ball for a few weeks.

“I’ve been a little bit upset.” McCullers said. “I was really looking forward to a great start to the camp and great start to the season. Any time this happens, it’s very frustrating for me and the team and the fan base. I just wanted to have a great year and get off to a great start and unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

Seeing McCullers suffer yet another injury is not a good sign as the 29-year-old missed the first 4 1/2 months of last year’s campaign, most of the playoffs in 2021 and didn’t pitch the entire 2019 season after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

There could be some long-term injury concerns for McCullers going forward, so the Astros should take their time bringing him back until he is healthy.

While Lance is recovering, Houston can rely on their other starting pitchers to carry the load until the former All-Star returns.

Rotation questions

Although the Astros lost last year’s Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, this team still boasts one of the best rotations in baseball because of their depth.

Houston’s starting pitchers for next season will include 2022 All-Star Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and most likely Hunter Brown.

The Astros would have used a six-man rotation to initiate the 2023 campaign, but as mentioned earlier, McCullers will miss at least Opening Day and could be out longer depending on the severity of his injury. During his absence, the Astros could use a more traditional five-man rotation or look at someone like Brandon Bielak or Forrest Whitley to fill the void.

Although the 25-year-old has yet to advance past Triple-A Sugar Land, Whitley will get his opportunity in spring training to showcase his skills and potentially earn a spot on the 26-man roster. Whitley is scheduled to start Monday's game against the Marlins, so we should get a feel for how he's progressed very soon.

Either way, the Astros will have enough talented arms to be competitive with or without McCullers to start the season.

Yordan’s hand

Another headline that came out of Astros’ spring training was Yordan Alvarez experiencing soreness in his left hand. He is not participating in any on-field drills to start camp.

This is similar to what he dealt with last season in both hands, which sidelined for him multiple games.

There is no update on when the 25-year-old will return to normal spring training activities, but the hand issue doesn’t seem to be too concerning at this time.

The backup catcher role

The Astros do not have any open starting positions going into this season, but do have one key role up in the air.

Both Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz will compete for the backup catcher position behind veteran Martin Maldonado.

Either one of these top prospects could obtain this role as both players have some big league experience and put up respectable numbers for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys last year.

Lee was the Astros secondary catcher when Jason Castro injured his knee but was sent back down to Sugar Land when the team traded for Christian Vasquez. He hit .160/.192/.240 over 25 plate appearances and only played in 12 total games.

A small sample size sure, but having a full year on the 26-man roster will certainly improve those numbers.

Diaz appeared in only six games for the Astros last year and seems to have more offensive potential and brings defensive versatility to the team as he can play first base as well.

It’s easy to see either one of these two top prospects make the Opening Day roster.

Dana Brown's extension comments

Astros general manager Dana Brown took control of the front office earlier this year and made it clear he wants to extend as much of this team’s core as he can.

Brown came from the Braves organization who have done a fantastic job of extending their key players such as Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley. He can take a page out of the Braves playbook to keep this Astros championship core together for multiple years.

Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Framber Valdez are all players Brown said should receive long-term deals as well.

Altuve and Bregman are set to become free agents in 2025 while Tucker and Valdez can hit the open market in 2026

A lot of time remains until these players hit free agency, but if extension talks are discussed earlier, there is a better chance of this team staying together for years to come.

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The Houston Astros haven't counted on their catchers to deliver much offensive production in recent years, with defensive specialist Martin Maldonado being their primary catcher for the last few seasons. But top hitting prospect Yainer Diaz is making a case to get more playing time behind the plate and at first, based on his ability to swing the bat.

Until recently, he hasn't been able to get any meaningful playing time. Even David Hensley, who was optioned to Sugar Land a few weeks ago, has more plate appearances than Diaz this season.

So how does manager Dusty Baker find more opportunities for Diaz? Should he use him more often as a DH, along with getting time at first base and catcher?

And what does that mean for Jose Abreu, Martin Maldonado, and to a lesser extent, former first round pick and Sugar Land Space Cowboy catcher, Korey Lee?

Plus, considering how good the Astros outfielders have been this year, does the team need to grab another bat before the trade deadline?

Don't miss the video above as we break it all down!

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