Houston has barely thawed out from the historic winter freeze, but the boys of summer are already back. The Houston Astros officially begin spring training this week, with the club holding its first full-squad workouts in West Palm Beach, Florida. The 24-game Grapefruit League schedule begins Sunday Feb. 28 against the Miami Marlins, and continues through the end of March.
The team taking the field in Florida this week is much different from the one that finished just one game shy of the World Series in last year's pandemic-shortened season. Most notably, longtime star outfielder George Springer has departed as a free agent, along with fellow outfielder Josh Reddick. Meantime, ace pitcher Justin Verlander is expected to miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.
For second-year manager Dusty Baker, spring is always a time for optimism and discovery. "Every spring, I'm looking for a surprise player or a surprise pitcher that we weren't counting on, that got it together over the winter, or got stronger, or just put everything together," says Baker.
This year Baker might be looking for even more "surprises," considering he's trying to fill the gaping lineup hole left by Springer's departure. "It's tough to replace a guy like that," he says. "You're not going to replace him with one man, you're going to have to replace him by other people stepping up."
"So we've got our eyes wide open, and there are some spots and some jobs to be won," continues Baker. "And we're not in the giveaway business, we're in the earn-it business."
Baker may have more options to fill out those spots, if General Manager James Click has something to say about it. "We will continue to keep our ear to the ground and see who's out there, and who can help us out," says Click. "And sometimes that might be just creating a little extra competition in camp."
Of course, spring training and the regular season will look different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Grapefruit League schedule was shortened from 30 games to 24 games with split-squad games eliminated and reduced travel. Fan attendance at spring training will be limited. The Astros plan to have at least 25% of fans at Minute Maid Park when the season begins. They'll open the regular season at Oakland on April 1, then host the A's in the Minute Maid Park opener on April 8.
Catch all the Astros action this season on Sportstalk 790, with games after 7 p.m. simulcast on KTRH.