Astros’ Hinch: Early split squads ‘worst possible scenario’

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A quirk in Houston’s early spring training schedule will force manager A. J. Hinch to use veteran stars such as outfielders George Springer and Michael Brantley earlier than he’d like.

Hinch isn’t pleased that his Astros will play split-squad games — at the New York Mets, home vs. Atlanta — on Sunday, the second day of their Grapefruit League play.

“Tomorrow we have a split squad, which is probably the worst possible scenario for the beginning of camp because I don’t really love playing guys this early,” Hinch said. “As we push the season earlier — into March now — spring training games, now it feels like mid-February, and we’re revving guys up. The position players don’t need as long a time to get ready for a season.”

The 2017 World Series champion Astros field a veteran team and many of those guys entered camp with injury questions. Using the designated hitter spot as sort of a half day off, one of Hinch’s toughest tasks, especially early in spring, will be choosing who gets those at-bats.

Springer, a two-time All-Star and the 2017 World Series MVP who is coming off a thumb injury, will make his debut on Sunday as a designated hitter. Brantley, a three-time All-Star who signed with Houston as a free agent, will DH the other game and won’t play the field for at least a week. The 10-year veteran played 141 games last season but only 101 combined games in 2016-17 because of injuries.

Returning from offseason knee surgery, 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve won’t debut until Monday, when he’ll DH instead of playing second base.

“We have a predominantly veteran team that’s been around,” Hinch said. “We have a team where there’s few questions and outside of a few health questions and a few decisions we have to make there’s not a lot of stress going into this spring as to what we need to implement.”

Saturday night’s lineup for the Astros’ Grapefruit League opener against Washington wasn’t exactly indicative of the team Hinch intends to field when Houston opens the season on March 28 at Tampa Bay, lacking any regulars from last season.

Outfielder Jake Marisnick, the closest thing to a regular in the lineup, led off the game by homering against Max Scherzer. Derek Fisher and Kyle Tucker completed the started outfield while the Astros regulars watched from the dugout.

“I have to play them tomorrow,” Hinch said. “Springer will player tomorrow, (Josh) Reddick will play tomorrow. Yuli (Gurriel) will play tomorrow. Everybody that you recognize is on our team will likely play tomorrow, minus the infielders.”

Third baseman Alex Bregman, who underwent offseason elbow surgery, isn’t expected to make his Grapefruit League debut until the weekend. Unlike his other teammates, Bregman won’t be eased back into Grapefruit League play by starting at DH.

“He’ll play third base as soon as he’s ready,” Hinch said.