Spring Training has finally arrived! Astros pitchers and catchers will be weighing in today in Kissimmee. Ten of the 25 pitchers expected in camp today have started at least two games in the big leagues. This year’s contingent also includes six more starters who have yet to reach the majors. Thet’s a lot of arms competing for five rotation spots. Who will make the cut? Let’s break it down.
Paul Clemens (Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)
I’ll start with those pitchers who are least likely to make the Opening Day roster and work back towards the top.
This time last season right-hander Paul Clemens looked like one of the most promising arms in the Astros system. After a difficult 2012 campaign and the acquisition of several young pitching prospects, Clemens has taken a back seat. The soon-to-be 25-year old should start the year at AAA Oklahoma City. Clemens will need to improve his command if he expects to make it to Houston this season.
Local product Ross Seaton is only 23 and has pitched only four games at the AAA level. He figures to need a little more seasoning as well.
Veteran righty Edgar Gonzalez made six starts for the Astros last season and will be in camp on a minor league contract. With the amount of competition this spring I think his chances of making the club are slim to none. Gonzalez will need a big spring to force his way onto the roster.
Jose Cisnero is an exciting young right-hander who made huge strides last season. After a successful 2011 campaign in Lancaster, Cisnero made 20 starts in AA last season before earning a promotion to Oklahoma City. He figures to start his age-24 season back in AAA but is someone to keep an eye on this spring and summer.
Next on the list comes a trio of lefties, none of whom should be considered a power arm. Soft-tossers Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer, and Rudy Owens will be looking to make an impression on pitching coach Doug Brocail and first year manager Bo Porter. Keuchel is the only one of the three to have pitched at the big league level, going 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP in 16 starts for the Astros last season. Oberholtzer split 2012 between AA and AAA and probably isn’t quite ready. Owens, acquired in the Wandy Rodriguez trade, could be the best of the bunch. The 25-year old went 10-8 with a 3.48 ERA and an impressive 1.19 WHIP lat season.
Top prospect Jarred Cosart will also be getting a look this spring. Cosart has great stuff but has yet to produce the type of numbers Astros fans had hoped to see. After battling blister problems last season, Cosart was sent to the Arizona Fall League where he posted less than stellar numbers. He’s still a longshot to make the rotation and Jeff Luhnow seems hesitant to send him to the bullpen. The Astros have a surplus of AA and AAA level starters and Luhnow has hinted that he may piggy-back them together, asking two starters to go four or five innings each on a per game basis. I would expect Cosart to fit into that plan at Oklahoma City.
Offseason acquisitions John Ely, Alex White, and Brad Peacock are currently on the outside of the Astros rotation looking in. If Bud Norris is traded, these three righties will find themselves in a battle for the #5 spot. All three still have minor league options remaining, so starting the season in AAA is a possibility. One or more of these guys could also make the bullpen as a long reliever.
Jordan Lyles and Jason Castro (Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports)
Earlier this winter Jeff Luhnow proclaimed Jordan Lyles as one of three Astros pitchers who would be in the starting rotation come Opening Day. Recent acquisitions may or may not have bumped Lyles from the mix. The Astros continued to show confidence in Jordan last season, even when he struggled. I wouldn’t expect a change in that philosophy now, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Philip Humber has to be one of the favorites to make the Astros starting rotation. The former Rice University standout has American League experience and a perfect game under his belt. I’d say a rotation spot is his to lose.
Erik Bedard, a 33-year old left-hander with a 3.85 ERA in over 1,000 big league innings, is in camp as a non-roster invitee. Bedard was the Pirates Opening Day starter last season but was released in late August after going 7-14 with a 5.01 ERA. Bedard did post a 4.07 FIP last season and has allowed less than one homerun per nine innings over his nine-year MLB career. Bedard appears to be the Astros best left-handed option for the rotation and could even be considered for Opening Day duty, especially if Norris is traded.
Lucas Harrell surprised almost everyone when he burst onto the scene last season. Harrell flourished in the #2 spot in the Astros rotation and took over as the ace once Wandy was traded. Lucas figures to continue in a similar role in 2012.
Although he is likely to be traded, until it actually happens Bud Norris has to be considered one of the favorites to open the season in the #1 spot in Houston’s rotation.
What about the bullpen? Yes, it’s an area that the Astros need to improve upon. Newly acquired Jose Veras is the leading candidate for the closer’s job and is pretty much a lock to make the roster. Likewise, Wesley Wright should have a lock on the role of left-handed specialist. After that the competition is pretty wide open.
Rule 5 draftee Josh Fields could be the next closest thing to a lock for the Opening Day roster. Fields has closed at both AA and AAA and the Astros will certainly want to get a long look at him. Fellow righty Hector Ambriz is also considered by many to be a favorite to break camp with the big club. Ambriz made 18 appearances for the Astros last season.
Three Astros relievers (Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, and Chia-Jen Lo) will be participating in this year’s World Baseball Classic. Missing out on valuable time with the Astros coaching staff could harm their chances of starting the season in Houston. Cedeno, Cruz, and Lo could be headed to extended Spring Training once the regular season starts.
This early in the game it’s hard to predict exactly who will be ready to answer the bell come March 31st. Injuries can play a big factor. Last season left-hander Sergio Escalona blew out his elbow during a bunting drill. Escalona had to undergo Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2012 season. This year Escalona is back as a non-roster invitee and will be battling for a spot.
The Astros claimed right-hander Sam Demel off waivers from the D-backs during the offseason. The 27-year old hurler had a 1.24 WHIP in 57 games at AAA Reno last season. Although he had an outstanding ground ball rate Demel was also victimized by the longball, allowing 11 round-trippers in 66 innings. If Demel manages to make the club it should be as nothing more than a mop-up man.
Non-roster invitees Kevin Chapman and Josh Zeid are in camp strictly for the experience. Chuckie Fick is another NRI who has to be considered a longshot at best.
Carlos Corporan (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
The catching corps seems to be pretty well set. Former first round pick Jason Castro will be the starter as long as he stays healthy. The Astros decided to decline their option on Chris Snyder, last year’s back-up catcher. Snyder signed with the Miami Marlins, leaving Carlos Corporan as the primary back-up for Castro.
Barring a surprise last minute transaction, non-roster invitee Jason Jaramillo will be the only other catcher in camp with big league experience. The 30-year old backstop has a career .235/.293/.327 slash line in 119 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Jaramillo last played in the majors in 2011.
Minor leaguers Rene Garcia, Carlos Perez, Max Stassi, and Chris Wallace will also be in camp to help handle the pitching staff. Perez, 22, and Stassi, 21, rank as the two top catching prospects in the organization but neither should be considered a threat to make the club.