Astros: Three Position Battles to Watch in Spring Training

Pitchers and catchers report to camp tomorrow for the Astros.

Astros

Feb 19, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel (left) talks with Mike Fiers (center) and pitcher Collin McHugh (31) during the workout at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, Spring Training is on the verge of beginning. The Astros are poised to be one of primary contenders in the American League.

All contenders though, no matter how complete they may seem, still have question marks. For example, the Astros still have a few unsettled positions.

Let’s take a look at what could be three key position battles this Spring.

Position Number One: First Base

Astros

Mar 5, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; New York Mets first baseman Dominic Smith (74) dives back into first base as Houston Astros first baseman A.J. Reed (80) attempts a tag during the second inning of a spring training baseball game at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably the most intriguing position battle for the Astros this spring is first base. Doesn’t that statement feel redundant? Anyway, this may actually be the year that Houston receives quality production from the position since the days of Lance Berkman.

Between Yulieski Gurriel, A.J. Reed, and Jon Singleton, the team definitely doesn’t lack for options. But are they quality ones?

Gurriel, the Astros mid-season acquisition last year, is scheduled to make $14.4 million in 2017. He could also be without a primary position. Left field is still an option, albeit an unlikely one with Carlos Beltran now in the fold. And it is still not known of how productive Gurriel will be in the majors. He had an 82 wRC+ last year, but that was in just 36 games. Definitely too small of a sample size to make any definitive ruling one way or another. But there are skills that make you wonder how much of a force he could be in this Astros lineup. In other words, the jury is still out on Gurriel.

Reed himself is relatively unproven. His 142 wRC+ last season with the Fresno Grizzlies was quite good. However, he only posted a 50 wRC+ in his short time in the majors. Like Gurriel though, this really isn’t much of a sample size to go by. Reed possesses the hitting skills to make his major league stint into a permanent one. However, he must cut down on his 34% K% with the Astros last season and improve upon his .236 BABIP. If not, he could find himself buried on the depth chart in 2017.

Enter Singleton, who is now off the Astros’ 40-man roster. And he could be completely off the teams radar in terms of being a long-term first base solution. However, he very well could change everyone’s mind with a strong showing in Florida. The skills are still there that made him an one-time top prospect.

Each one of these players has the talent to be the team’s primary first baseman. And while all may have their warts and flaws, the Astros should not leave any stone unturned in their first base search.

Position Number Two: Left-Handed Relief Specialist

Astros

Oct 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Tony Sipp throws a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the 7th inning in game two of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The primary left hander out of the bullpen, Tony Sipp, had a largely forgettable 2016 season.

4.95 ERA
6.19 FIP
3.71 BB/9
8.24 K/9
19.4% HR/FB

Oh, the Astros paid Sipp $6 million last season. His WAR converted into dollars was a negative $6 million. Yeah, um, that wasn’t good to say the least.

So, where does the team go from here?

The most likely solution is rolling with Sipp for at least another season. He is guaranteed $6 million in each of the next two seasons. And while his 2016 season was clearly not optimal, the possibility of a bounce back campaign exists. Don’t forget that he was one of the Astros best relievers in 2014 and 2015.

But say if Sipp is unable to replicate his past success, who should Houston turn to under that circumstance?

Kevin Chapman, Asher Tolliver, and Reymin Guaduan are on the Astros 40-man roster. All three could be options depending on how they perform. Brian Holmes, a non-roster invitee, could be another name to watch, even though he has been primarily a starter throughout his minor league career.

Position Number Three: Backend of the Starting Rotation

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Jul 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Mike Fiers (54) throws to the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of their MLB baseball game at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a question that the Astros top three starting pitchers are Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh. Of course that is contingent on health.

The remaining two slots in the starting rotation are somewhat up for grabs. Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton are the presumptive favorites. However, you shouldn’t discount Chris Devenski, Joseph Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Francis Martes, and Brady Rodgers.

Devenski and Musgrove are probably the favorites to challenge Fiers and Morton at this point. After all, both impressed in their debut seasons. Don’t forget that Devenski posted a 2.16 ERA/2.34 FIP in 108 innings of relief. In 62 innings as a starter, Musgrove posted a 4.06 ERA/4.18 FIP.

The backend of the rotation may play a vital role in 2017 for the Astros. After all, there isn’t a guarantee about Keuchel and McCullers’ health. And don’t forget that Fiers and Doug Fister were the most consistent Astros starters at one point last season.

Sure, the rotation may lack that for-sure ace on the front end. But the backend could better than most teams. It’ll be interesting to see who takes the job by the horns in Spring Training.

Let the Competition Commence!

Spring Training is used, right or wrong, to see how players measure up against one another. It is also used as a time to see who can be an asset to the team’s upcoming season.

The Astros are contenders in 2017, which means that not most roster spots will be open for auditions. Of course, you have to account for depth. And there will always be a few positions that need some fine tuning. Houston has positions that fit this description. Let’s see if some answers come our way in Florida.

**Statistics and salary information courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference**

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