Four questions the Astros need to answer with Jose Altuve sidelined

JUPITER, Fla. — After his five-inning appearance against the Miami Marlins ended, Alex Bregman found his cell phone and got the news. Two taps on the screen produced a press release announcing Jose Altuve’s broken thumb and subsequent surgery.

Astros general manager Dana Brown revealed Altuve’s diagnosis shortly before the first pitch of Sunday’s Grapefruit League game at Roger Dean Stadium. After it was over, Altuve’s teammates realized their new reality.

“He’s one of the best players in the world and a leader for this team,” Bregman said. “I am very sorry for him. He went into spring training in great shape. He was playing great in the (World Baseball Classic), on base all the time. I know he will come out stronger and he will be ready to help us as soon as he gets back.

“You can’t try to be him. We just need to get some guys to step up and fill in and do their job. You can’t replace Jose, but we have some good guys who will follow him.

Bregman and Brown said something similar, but it bears repeating: replacing Altuve is impossible. Brown cannot acquire anyone outside the organization with Altuve’s elite skill set.

A plethora of options exist on and off Houston’s 40-man roster, but none inspire the kind of confidence Altuve engenders.

Barring something catastrophic, Altuve will return this season. Until he does, manager Dusty Baker has to maneuver his center infield and the top of his batting order in ways he never wanted to imagine.

“It’s so recent. We need to pool our ideas and find out what we can do and who we can do it with and over a long period of time,” Baker said after Sunday’s game. “It is a great loss. We have to come together as a unit and take it.”

As they tackle this task, here are four questions for Baker, Brown, and the rest of the Astros to answer.

When will Altuve be back?

Brown will wait until after Altuve’s surgery to offer a more specific timeline, but it’s hard to imagine his return to the major league lineup before June. Last season, Bryce Harper broke his thumb when he was hit by a pitch—a scene similar to when Altuve was hit by Team USA’s Daniel Bard in the World Baseball Classic—on June 25. Harper returned to the Phillies lineup on August 26.

It’s also worth mentioning that Altuve has yet to have surgery. Brown said the swelling in Altuve’s thumb needed to subside before doctors could operate. The general manager estimated that the surgery could occur “toward the end of the week.” Starting the timeline therefore probably gives a clearer picture of how long Houston has to go without Altuve.

Who will play second base?

David Hensley and Mauricio Dubón are expected to split the workload in second place in Altuve’s absence. Dubón has three starts there this spring. Hensley started there during Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against the Miami Marlins. Previously, Baker said second base will come down to performance and pitching matches.

Hensley hit 379 at Class AAA Sugar Land last season. He finished with a .882 OPS against right-handed pitching and a .956 clip against lefties, though he only took 84 hits against lefties. Dubón has a career .756 OPS against major league left-handed pitching.

Dubón’s OPS against righties is 200 points lower. Perhaps it portends a situation where Dubón tackles lefty pitching and Hensley is there against righties, but Baker has demonstrated during his tenure that he doesn’t see numbers or splits as gospel.

Neither Hensley nor Dubón hit much, but Hensley demonstrated improved getting on base ability during his breakout minor league season last year.

The Astros view Dubón as a better fielder at second base, and given the premium they place on defense, that could tip the scales in his favor. Baker enjoyed using Dubón in midfield last year, but he may not need it this season now that Jake Meyers looks fully healthy.

Baker became a fan of Hensley’s basic demeanor and discipline during minor league minicamp last spring, but it must be said that he made just 34 major league appearances.

Hensley started two games in the World Series last October, passing perhaps the toughest test any player can face. A full season major league shootout presents another. The league will make its adjustments and Hensley must find a way to readjust. Hensley may have more offensive edge than Dubón, but he can’t match it in major league experience.

Brown hasn’t ruled out an in-depth buyout from outside the organization, though the available market isn’t clear. As roster cuts are made around the majors and Opening Day rosters are finalized, options may present themselves.

Who will hit the leadoff?

There are multiple possibilities and Baker knows that everyone has a preference.

“I’m sure I have a group of people trying to help me in the media, in the public and everywhere,” Baker said Sunday with a smile. “But when you have a guy that you assign to leadoff every day (carried away), that changes the rest of your lineup as well. You don’t want to be too heavy and you want to have as much balance as possible. I’ll try to do what I think is best.”

Five men not named Altuve broke the lead last season for the Astros: Dubón, Chas McCormick, Jeremy Peña, Kyle Tucker and Jose Siri. Siri is now a Tampa Bay Ray, and it’s hard to imagine Baker reaching the edge of Dubón or McCormick for long. More often than not, Baker just put them there as stopgaps that didn’t interfere with the rest of his lineup.

Peña, Tucker and Alex Bregman are perhaps the three ideal candidates to replace Altuve as Houston’s lead hitter. Baker has previously insisted that Michael Brantley will strike second when he’s healthy, so hitting Tucker — another left-handed hitter — over him would go against Baker’s desire for balance.

If the decision is between Peña and Bregman, it could come down to preference. Bregman is a basic machine with one of the best eyes on the team. He is also a better and more accomplished hitter than Peña. Ensuring that one of the best hitters on the team gets the most hits in a game should be a priority.

Bregman drove in 93 rides last season. Only Tucker and Yordan Alvarez chased more. Keeping Bregman further down the batting order could give him more chances with runners on board, situations in which he excels.

Peña is a free swinger with the power to change the board with one swing. Sound familiar?

Baker beat Peña’s lead eight times last season. Hitting him there in Altuve’s absence could allow Peña to see more fastballs, against which he hit .285 and hit .467 last year. Peña drove in Sunday’s first lineup following Altuve’s injury. Could he continue?

“Maybe,” Baker said.

Who takes Altuve’s place on the Opening Day roster?

When the regular season begins, the Astros will move Altuve to the 60-day injured list, opening up a spot on a 40-man roster that is currently full.

Non-tenured invitee Dixon Machado has started 72 major league games at second base and has earned rave reviews for his defense this spring. He also has a .577 OPS in 522 career major league plate appearances. His minor league numbers aren’t much better: just a . 672 mark in 11 seasons.

If the Astros want nothing more than a defensive insurance policy behind Dubón and Hensley, Machado makes sense, but it’s hard to imagine Houston carrying such a lousy offensive player for Altuve’s entire absence.

Using Hensley more at second base could rob Baker of his backup first base. Maybe he opens up a spot for JJ Matijevic or Bligh Madris to break up the Opening Day roster. Both hit left-handed, offering balance to a bench in need.

The addition of Justin Dirden could achieve the same goal. Dirden hits left-handed and isn’t on Houston’s 40-man roster, but he continued his breakout spring with a good double Sunday afternoon. He is now 7 for 20 in Grapefruit League play with four walks and seven strikeouts.

Dirden is just an outfielder with just 32 games above Class AA, but he could make his way onto the Opening Day roster. When it started last week, it only seemed feasible for Dirden to resolve it if Alvarez and Brantley both started the season on the injured list. Now, it’s almost hard to imagine leaving out Dirden.

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