Friday, April 1, 2016

Astros Set Opening Day Roster

The Astros wrapped up an 18-11-2 Spring Training with a 4-2 win against the Brewers.  Tyler White hit a home run, Carlos Gómez doubled in two runs, and the Astros bullpen (with appearances from Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, James Hoyt and Josh Fields) was perfect in three-and-two-thirds, striking out 8 of the 11 batters they faced.

A trio of anticipated injury-related transactions were announced after the game.  Lance McCullers, Evan Gattis and Max Stassi were all transferred to the 15-day DL.  McCullers' and Gattis' stints were retroactive to March 25 (meaning they can be activated after the opening series against the Yankees), whereas Stassi's time on the DL was retroactive to March 29.  None of these three players is likely to be activated within the minimum timeframes.

The Astros have also officially cleared up their remaining roster battles over the last few days.  Right-handed corner-infielders Tyler White and Matt Duffy both claimed the last two position-player spots, and Michael Feliz beat out James Hoyt and Wandy for the final spot in the bullpen.  Tyler White needed to be added to the 40-man roster, which is now full, so no further moves are needed in the short term.

The Astros also announced their 25-man roster to start the season.  They have a fairly heavy early-season schedule, with only three April off-days after their opener at Yankee Stadium on Monday (followed by two off-days in May).  Despite this, they have opted to carry 12 pitchers and 13 position players - a reverse of what they did most of last season.  That allows for a four-man bench in AL ballparks.  So lets have a look at how it has all shaken down:

  • The nominal starting infield will consist of Jason Castro, Tyler White, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Luis Valbuena (two LHH and three RHH)
  • The nominal starting outfield will consist of Carlos Gómez, flanked by George Springer and Colby Rasmus (one LHH, two RHH)
  • The DH situation is not entirely clear due to the absence of Evan Gattis
  • Three infield reserves made make the first road trip: Marwin Gonzalez, Matt Duffy and Erik Kratz (one switch-hitter, two RHH)
  • Two outfield reserves will also travel: Jake Marisnick and Preston Tucker (one LHH, one RHH).
  • As already reported by the Constable, the rotation will consist of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers (who struck out seven and walked none earlier today), Scott Feldman and Doug Fister.
  • This leaves the following pitchers making up the bullpen: LHP Tony Sipp and RHP's Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Will Harris, Josh Fields and Michael Feliz.
Here is how I interpret these machinations:
  • Tyler White had an awesome spring, raking to the tune of .353/.443/.588.  In 60 plate appearances, he waked nine times, while being struck out ten times.  He may not walk more than he struck out in the Major Leagues (like he did in the minors), but he could get close.  He has earned a genuine chance at remaining with the team for the entire year.
  • Michael Feliz also had a great spring (1.72 ERA in 15+ frames, with 16 strikeouts) and his ability to throw multiple innings likely won him the final spot in the bullpen.  Another advantage to having Feliz in the major leagues for the first month or so is that he will probably throw fewer innings in the majors than he would starting in Fresno.  Feliz undoubtedly will be on some kind of soft innings-cap in 2016, which could preserve his ability to step into the rotation later in the year, depending on how the back-end of the rotation fares.
  • We still don't know how A.J. Hinch plans to use the 'pen, but I would not be surprised with a looser arrangement than most clubs would consider - although short of a "closer-by-committee" approach.  Gregerson has looked good in very limited action so far, and a lot of teams would be happy to have Will Harris or Josh Fields taking a late-inning role in the 'pen.  Ken Giles, of course, has scuffled, but let's hope that doesn't continue too much longer.
  • The Astros could field an all-righty batting lineup against opposing lefty starters.  Left-handed starters had much better luck against the Astros last year than righties (.737 OPS in 61 games versus .761 OPS).  Imagine a lineup of Kratz catching, White at DH, Duffy and MarGo on the infield corners, and Marisnick patrolling left field.  That would leave an all left-handed bench (Rasmus, Tucker, Valbuena and Castro) which may leave them exposed to late-game match-up, however, but a batting order of Altuve-Gómez-Springer-Correa-White-Duffy-Gonzalez-Kratz-Marisnick could be a quietly effective mix of contact and OBP skills, speed and power.
  • The Astros may go with an early-season platoon at DH, with Matt Duffy and Preston Tucker splitting duties (although I discuss Preston Tucker and his platoon-ability in this article).  Marwin is also a candidate for an early DH start or two, or perhaps he could be used to push Valbuena into a DH platoon with Duffy by getting a start at third base.  This is, of course, assuming that Tyler White starts at first base.
  • The narrative around this offence is very different to the narrative around the 2015 offence.  Everyone kind of knew the Astros in 2015 would be mercurial - they had power all through the order, but were also going to strike out a lot.  This lineup still has power and strikeouts, but not absolutely everywhere.  The additions of White and Duffy, plus improvements from Springer in the contact department, should at least not allow opposing power strikeout starters to scythe through the Astros' order the first couple of times through.

In terms of the return of the injured players, I would think the following is worth mentioning:
  • McCullers probably won't be ready until early May, which I think would please the Astros.  His innings will be monitored carefully this year, which will probably be the riskiest of his early-career (as the year following the season where he suddenly increased his workload).  By then, Fister may have proven his ineffectiveness or Feldman may be injured, both of which occurred by early May in 2015.
  • Who Gattis steps in for is not totally clear.  If Tyler White struggles, I could see him get 20-or-so days in Fresno, partly as a way of delaying his free-agency by a year.  Otherwise, Jake Marisnick may be a luxury as a defensively orientated outfield reserve on a team that boasts three players capable of playing a passable CF, or Matt Duffy's presence may not be needed if Luis Valbeuna and MarGo start the season strongly.
  • Max Stassi will probably get as much time as he needs to recover from his wrist, then potentially an extended rehab stint in Fresno or Corpus while the Astros evaluate what they have in Erik Kratz.
In addition to this, it is worth noting that strong Spring Training performances were observed by A.J. Reed (.311/.333/.600 in 47 PA's), Colin Moran (.349/.417/.628 in 47 PA's) and Danny Worth (.326/.408/.581 in 48 PA's), which seems to bode well for the overall infield depth.  The notable spring flop was Jon Singleton (.151/.196/.358 in 56 PA's).  

So it is poised to be an exciting season.  This seems to me like the first Astros team actually burdened with expectations for the first time in a decade, and it will be interesting to see how that is handled.  We will be providing game recaps and other posts throughout the season.  I would expect that the above roster will remain in place for most of April, with perhaps the return of Evan Gattis the only event likely to shake it up.  

Please feel free to add your comments, predictions or feedback below.