Day 1 sounds normal, but a lot is different
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On an overcast Florida morning, before the sun arrived to burn skin, the core of the 2021 Astros gathered on the first-base line of a back field. They maintained distance. Some donned masks. Across the field, a group of minor league pitchers played catch, producing the pop of mitts so many are accustomed to hearing around this time.
Dusty Baker surveyed the selection of veterans. The skipper leaned his weight on the knob of a fungo bat.
“You guys showed up ready to go,” Baker told them.
Several in the organization shared his sentiment. The Astros’ first full-squad workout had little fanfare and no fan attendance due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but those who participated in it came away impressed with the club.
“I was talking to ( Jose) Altuve today, and I said, ‘Damn, this is the best we’ve ever looked in the first workout of spring training,’ ” shortstop Carlos Correa said.
The workout spanned three hours and included all of the traditional early spring training fare: pitchers fielding ground balls, infield drills, bullpen sessions and many, many rounds of batting practice.
Normalcy ended there. Many of the health and safety protocols from last season remained in place. Players grabbed individual bottles of water or sports drink in lieu of sharing a jug. Baker wore batting gloves throughout the workout. All of his staff kept masks over nose and mouth.
The team’s massive five-rubber bullpen held a maximum of three pitchers simultaneously. Staggered workouts on as many as five fields helped promote social distancing.
The team did not conduct its customary all-team meeting that usually precedes the first fullsquad workout. Instead, Baker met with the young players early in the morning before seeing his veterans around noon. He came away impressed.
“Honestly, it was super exciting,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Happy to be around a baseball field, smell the fresh-cut grass. Just being back in spring training, everything felt right. It’s good to be back playing baseball. Super exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
Bregman bulks up after down year
Alex Bregman took no time to rest this winter.
“I took the last six months off,” the Astros third baseman told himself, “so there’s no time off. I had to get after it.”
Bregman is not one to sugarcoat his shortcomings. His self-criticisms are refreshingly candid and offer a window into the mind of a man many describe as baseball obsessed. His 2020 season, one truncated by a pandemic and derailed by a hamstring injury, fell woefully short of Bregman’s enormous expectations.
“I was super weak and fragile, not only physically (but) mentally,” Bregman said. “I just felt weak all around.”
Bregman finished the 2020 season with an .801 OPS in 42 games. He missed three weeks after straining his hamstring on Aug. 19.
In the postseason, when many of his teammates shook their regular-season slumps, Bregman slashed a paltry .220/.316/.300 in 57 plate appearances. Just two of his 11 hits garnered extra bases.
“There’s no excuses for any setback besides myself,” Bregman said. “That’s it. I just needed to personally do a better job. Whether we had a shutdown or whatever the circumstances may have been, there’s no excuse for it. I’m back to feeling like myself.”
Bregman’s solution in the offseason? “Get in the gym and get after it.” The two-time All-Star said he gained more than 20 pounds in hopes of providing more stability and holding positions in his swing.
“Mechanically, my front side was flying out (in my swing). I wasn’t using my hands like I had in the past,” Bregman said. “It’s good to feel strong again. Good to feel back to being myself. I’m looking forward to playing a great 162-game schedule.”
Straw aims to make team’s faith pay off
Myles Straw’s every step might be scrutinized for the next six weeks. His task in spring training may seem monumental, but his personal agenda is simple.
“Get on base,” Straw said. “That’s it. That’s my biggest thing. Get on base.”
Straw began full-squad workouts Monday as George Springer’s heir apparent in center field. The task could daunt some, but Straw views it as an opportunity. He did not follow the winter play-by-play of Springer’s free agency but acknowledged the faith the organization signaled by not signing an established replacement.
“In my head, it kind of tells me that’s an opening and it’s a good chance for me to get out there and prove to the organization and to everyone I can be out there and contribute to this team,” Straw said. “I’m very excited for that opportunity and looking forward to working hard here in spring and getting better.”
The Astros felt comfortable with internal options due to the supporting cast. Houston returns seven hitters with either aboveaverage or elite seasons during their careers. Catchers Jason Castro and Martin Maldonado won’t be relied upon for their offense.
Straw realizes where that leaves him.
“I’m definitely going to need to hit this year,” Straw said. “Grinding out at-bats, have good at-bats. I know guys are going to attack me as much as they can just because of the other guys we have in the lineup. Just being ready to hit and staying aggressive and coming back to it and just getting on base for those guys is going to be the key thing for me this year.”
Straw’s major league sample size is far too small for absolutes. In 224 big league plate appearances, he has produced a .649 OPS. Straw’s speed is elite and his defense above average. Earlier this month, he told MLB Network Radio he could lead the majors in stolen bases with everyday playing time.
Stealing bases starts with one thing: getting on.
“I have to work on getting on base as much as I can for this team,” said Straw, he of a .327 career major league on-base percentage. “I think everyone in the world knows that we’ve got some guys who can drive in runs. The biggest thing for me this year will be getting on base. Just being a trendsetter and letting those guys do the rest.”