Iron sharpens iron—how did the Astros fare against their Triple-A affiliate in Sugar Land and who made a case to help the Astros win now? Read on for more.
On a pleasant 73-degree spring evening, the Sugar Land Space Cowboys hosted the Houston Astros in an exhibition game less than twenty miles from Minute Maid Park. To the delight of many in attendance, the Astros initially fielded bona fide starters, allowing the likes of Alex Bregman, Martín Maldonado, José Abreu, Yordan Álvarez, and Ryan Pressly to make an impact on the contest.
With mere days until the Astros begin the regular season, the Astros have now finalized spots for the last of the openings on the 26-man roster. Here are key takeaways from the showdown in Sugar Land.
Blanco’s stuff looked good—real good. Though only hitting 94 on the gun, the right-hander’s slider had bite, while his fastball placement kept the Triple-A hitters struggling.
While watching him in-person both in Jupiter and in Sugar Land this month, I noticed he comes across poised, steady, and collected with his control and mechanics. Blanco features a quiet, up-tempo pacing between pitches that spectators should enjoy for keeping the ballgame moving along.
The 29-year-old right-hander has only pitched six innings in the big leagues, and has now successfully knocked on Astros’ manager Dusty Baker’s door for an opportunity to make his first opening day roster.
Blanco—a participant in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic—will be hard-pressed not to remain with the big league club especially after turning in a .64 ERA in spring training. He also seems to feature a humble, down-to-earth personality, reflecting a calmness on a bigger stage. While Blanco walked toward the bullpen between innings during the exhibition on Monday, I noticed the right-hander took the time to go out of his way to shake hands with a batboy near the infield—perhaps someone Blanco remembered from his time pitching with Triple-A Sugar Land before being called up by the Astros for a cup of coffee last season.
After striking out in the leadoff spot against Astros’ minor leaguer, J.P. France—who offered an inspiring two-inning, no-run, three-strikeout performance for Sugar Land against the Astros' best hitters—Peña went two for three. France's effectiveness made quite the impression and he may soon be an Astro. After facing France in the first, Peña’s adjustments in his subsequent at-bats with pitch selection and his ability to hit to the opposite field seemed far beyond that of an average major leaguer beginning their second season—a good sign for Astros fans.
Álvarez went one for three on the evening driving an 87-mph pitch past the first baseman toward the right-field wall for a double. This particular swing showed Alvarez’s ability to pull the ball with authority following injury—also a good sign for hopeful Astros fans.
Hensley went one-for-two with a single and reached on a walk. His glove work seemed solid early in the contest, fielding a tricky short hop, redirecting and throwing a strike to first for a double-play while helping to preserve Blanco’s scoreless outing.
Hensley made a strong case to make the opening day roster with Jose Altuve on the injured list. Though unconventionally tall as a 6-6 second baseman, Hensley’s .345 average in 29 at-bats last season has to have tempted Baker to give Hensley the nod to be the first man up for a chance to hold down second base until Altuve’s return.
Taylor’s horizontal movement on his slider had major run. However, his fastball velocity seemed to have tapered off. The left-handed reliever’s four-seamer cruised in around 89 on the radar gun, rarely touching 90.
Though perhaps an outlier, this outing seems in sharp contrast to the 96-mph fastball the southpaw initially displayed when the Astros first signed him just several seasons ago. The lefty walked one, struck out one, and finished with a scoreless frame. But the question presents itself—is Taylor hurt?
Meanwhile, lefty Austin Davis—who has turned in a 1.93 ERA during spring training in nine innings pitched—cruised in the upper-80s with his fastball. However, unlike Taylor, Davis hit 95 on the gun at least once. Against Sugar Land, Davis walked two and appeared to struggle with command of his sweeper—a pitch similar to a slider with more horizontal break.
In contrast to Davis's nine inning of work from the mound during spring training, Taylor has only pitched two innings but has yet to surrender an earned run. Just who will be Baker's go-to lefty specialist when the game is on the line may have yet to be decided. Perhaps Baker intends to stretch out the arms of his lefties in Triple-A, creating a revolving door of call-ups, allowing his southpaws to build their in-season conditioning in Sugar Land before rejoining the Astros.
The 24-year-old catcher took Sugar Land reliever, Bryan Garcia, deep in the top of the sixth inning, going two-for-two on the night with an RBI and a run scored. However, the wind was blowing out to right, aiding Diaz’s line drive shot on its narrow journey as it barely cleared the outfield wall. Before Constellation Field’s remodel several years ago which decreased the distance required to hit a home run, Diaz’s drive would likely not have even hit the former right-field fence on the fly.
Nevertheless, to Diaz’s credit, he did display power to drive the ball with authority the other way. Astros’ manager, Dusty Baker likely had his hands full with the decision to choose Díaz versus Lee to back up Martín Maldonado behind the dish.
On the one hand, Díaz has only registered eight at-bats as a big leaguer, trailing Lee who features slightly more major league experience with 25-at bats and 12 games under his belt. Last season Díaz hit .125, but Lee also hit under the Mendoza line with a paltry average of .160. Ultimately, Baker chose to give Lee more at-bats in the minors and keep developing the 24-year-old catcher.
Neither Díaz or Lee has a long leash, should one struggle and the other bide time in Triple-A with Sugar Land. Nevertheless, Korey Lee will have difficulty edging out Díaz to back up Maldonado until Díaz proves himself to struggle.
Lee exhibited solid plate discipline walking twice, but seemed lost in his third plate appearance while facing Space Cowboys reliever, Bryan Garcia. In his third at-bat, while facing Garcia, Lee swung through two fastballs, one noticeably out of the zone. Also as a blemish on his night, Lee was caught attempting to steal second by a large margin. Close games can be decided by base running decisions and it probably did not sit well with the Astros coaching staff. Either Lee got a very late jump or did not get a decent primary lead off of first base, but such things can be improved upon in Triple-A where the win-loss stakes for losing do not affect MLB playoff positioning.
Between the two catchers in Grapefruit League action this spring, Lee achieved a slightly better on-base percentage while slashing .258/.343/.827 in 31 at-bats, but it just does not top Diaz’s superior overall slash line of .325/.317/.892 in a larger spring sample size of 40 at-bats.
Despite giving up a homer to Díaz, Bryan Garcia performed at a major-league level pitching against the defending World Champs. The 27-year-old saw major league action as recently as last season with the Tigers, posting a 3.54 ERA in 20 innings of work.
Complementing a fastball topping out at 93, Garcia commanded a mid-80s changeup, keeping Astros batters off balance. The University of Miami product struck out three, walked one, and gave up just three hits over four innings of work.
What Garcia brings to the table—should the Astros need bullpen versatility or a spot-starter—is a plus-curveball in the low-70s he can throw for strikes in any count. This pitch—perhaps just recently developed by the righty—reinvigorates Garcia’s career and strengthens the Astros collective repertoire when needing a curveball specialist in a pinch.
Even if Baker opts to keep Garcia in Triple-A, look for the 27-year-old to get a shot again in the majors with the Astros shortly. When McCullers—the Astros best right-handed curveball pitcher—is unable to take the ball, it likely has to weigh on Houston's coaching staff to consider giving Garcia's breaking ball a shot in various major league matchups where opposing lineups may fare worse against the curve.