Astros sit regulars in first spring training game since sign-stealing scandal

Real live baseball has returned. Spring training games started across Arizona and Florida on Saturday. Yeah, Cactus League and Grapefruit League games are meaningless, but it’s baseball, and spring games are fun in their own way. The Houston Astros will open their exhibition schedule Saturday night against the Washington Nationals, coincidentally enough, the team that defeated them in the World Series four months ago. 

The Astros and Nationals share a spring training facility — FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach — and are frequent Grapefruit League opponents.

In the first game since the sign-stealing scandal, new Astros manager Dusty Baker will field a starting lineup loaded with minor leaguers and journeymen. Not a single regular will be in Saturday’s lineup and only one of the nine starters, speedster Myles Straw, is projected to make the Opening Day roster.

“I’m curious about most of them because I don’t know them,” Baker told reporters, including’s Brian McTaggart, about Saturday’s replacement-heavy lineup. “I’m more curious about the young players that may help us at the start of the season or as the season goes on, so you can have some input on the decision of who’s on your team.”

The Astros were busted stealing signs during their 2017 World Series championship season and also early in 2018. GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended and then fired, the team was fined $5 million, and they will forfeit four high draft picks as well. No players were disciplined because they were given immunity in exchange for cooperating with the investigation.

Because no players were punished, there has been speculation Astros players will be targeted this season — some opposing pitchers, including Indians righty Mike Clevinger, have strongly hinted at throwing at Houston’s hitters — though commissioner Rob Manfred recently said throwing at players would not be tolerated. That applies to all players, not just Astros.

“We have been working on for some time a memorandum about being hit by pitches, intentionally throwing at batters,” Manfred said last week. “It’s really dangerous, really a dangerous undertaking, and completely independent of the Astros investigation we will be issuing at the beginning of this week a memorandum on hit by pitches which will increase the ramifications of that type of behavior.” 

Only six 2017 Astros position players remain with the team: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and George Springer. If anyone does get thrown at, either during spring training or the regular season, it figures to be one of those players. I doubt a player like, say, Michael Brantley would have to wear one when he wasn’t with the team in 2017 or 2018. That applies to minor leaguers as well. 

All Astros players will be booed mercilessly all season — there were rumors early Saturday morning that any fans heckling Astros on Saturday would be ejected, but the Washington Post‘s Jesse Dougherty says that’s false — and that just comes with the territory. I don’t think players in Saturday’s lineup have to worry about getting drilled for stealing signs.

Eventually Astros regulars will have to play, of course, and once guys like Bregman and Springer are in the lineup, the retaliation watch will be on, even in spring training.

“This is time for the kids to play,” Baker said, explaining Saturday’s lineup. “We’ll play some of the regulars the day after and some of the regulars the day after that in Lakeland.”

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