WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the day manager Dusty Baker said he was leaning towards making Jose Altuve his leadoff hitter to begin the season, Altuve cranked a leadoff homer in the Astros’ 3-0 win over the Cardinals on Thursday night at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
It’s that kind of punch — and Altuve’s track record — that will likely place the veteran second baseman atop Baker’s lineup for the April 1 season opener against the A’s. That certainly comes as no surprise considering Altuve has hit leadoff consistently in the last 10 days or so of camp, and he has done it plenty in his career.
“It’s still a work in progress, but I’m leaning towards Altuve,” Baker said. “He’s pretty damn good. The guy can get 700 at-bats and that equates out to like 250 hits. That’s a lot.”
Altuve, a six-time American League All-Star and three-time AL batting champion, has never had more than 225 hits in a season, and he is coming off the worst season of his career, in which he hit .219 with a .629 OPS. George Springer, who signed with the Blue Jays as a free agent in the offseason, had held down the Astros’ leadoff spot for the previous five seasons.
“Tonight was like the ghost of George Springer,” Baker said. “George Springer’s spirit is still here.”
Still, Baker wasn’t completely ready to say Altuve was his leadoff hitter, though that was before Thursday’s homer.
“He appears that he’s getting [more comfortable],” Baker said. “We knew that we were going to have this obstacle when we got started. It’s not easy to replace George, but we had no choice.”
Struggling Alvarez no concern for Baker
Considering he missed the first two weeks of Grapefruit League games, slugger Yordan Alvarez’s struggles at the plate aren’t cause for alarm for Baker. Alvarez, who was brought along slowly after he had both knees operated on in August, was 3-for-21 with four strikeouts heading into Thursday’s game. He struck out with the bases loaded in the first inning and delivered an RBI double in the fifth.
“He’s missed a lot of time,” Baker said. “He got a late start. I’m surprised he’s making contact as much as he is. I remember when I was a player, Roy Campanella told me to try to go through Spring Training without striking out. I asked him why and he said, ‘Then you know where the head of the bat is and the sweet spot on your bat is.’”
Baker said the more breaking balls and offspeed pitches that Alvarez sees, the sooner he’ll get his timing down.
“That’s why I’m batting him down in the order,” the skipper said. “I know you guys are used to seeing him up in the order, but I figured if his timing is going to be off for a while, and also the fact I don’t want him running the bases a whole bunch, I’d hit him lower.”
Alvarez slugged 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games in 2019 en route to being named a unanimous AL Rookie of the Year Award winner. In August, he had surgery to repair a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee, with a routine cleanup performed in his left knee.
The debate on roster composition
With a 26-man Opening Day roster, Baker said the club is still considering whether to carry 13 pitchers and 13 position players or 14 pitchers and 12 position players. It’s likely the Astros will go with 13 position players, though, giving them more flexibility off the bench as opposed to an extra arm.
If Houston carried 13 position players, the team would have three bench players, not including a second catcher. Aledmys Díaz, who can play around the infield and in left field, is guaranteed a spot if he’s healthy. The Astros will need a fourth outfielder from either Chas McCormick or Jose Siri, and the final spot could come down to infielders Abraham Toro or Robel García.
“With 13 pitchers, we’re still short on the bench,” Baker said. “Then with 14 pitchers, we’d be really short. One of them is a catcher you have to hold back in case something happens, so we’re having to work out some guys who might be the emergency third catcher. It was a lot easier last year when you knew [Garrett] Stubbs was your catcher.”
Last year, teams were able to carry 30 players to start the regular season, with the roster being trimmed to 28 two weeks later and 26 two weeks after that (for the final month of the regular season). Stubbs began last year on the Opening Day roster, was sent to the taxi squad on Sept. 9 and called up on Sept. 28. It’s unlikely the Astros would carry a third catcher throughout this season.