HOUSTON — Michael Brantley will be “playable throughout the postseason,” Astros general manager Dana Brown said on Thursday, offering at least some clarity on Houston’s 26-man roster construction for the American League Division Series.
Brantley’s availability has been, at best, ambiguous since the team activated him off the injured list on Aug. 29. He appeared in just 15 of the Astros’ final 29 games and took 57 plate appearances. Brantley participated in the team’s workout at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, which included facing reliever Hector Neris in a live batting practice session.
“The way he feels now, he feels good enough to be on our roster,” Brown said on Thursday.
Brantley was unavailable from Sept. 17-27 with recurring soreness in his surgically-repaired right shoulder, but the Astros never put him back on the injured list. Brantley started three of the team’s final four regular season games, all of which afforded him a day off between appearances.
Brantley hasn’t played on consecutive days since starting three games in a row from Sept. 9-11. The ALDS only has two scheduled off days — one after Game 2 and another after a possible Game 4 — leaving manager Dusty Baker somewhat more uncertain about Brantley’s total availability.
“I don’t know, that’s a question that I can’t answer because I don’t know how his body is going to respond,” Baker said on Thursday. “I’m hoping I can get whatever I can get out of him. He’s my Kawhi Leonard. I can’t say it enough — whether we get him for two games, one game or whatever. (I’m) asking him constantly and he’s tired of me asking him.”
Having Brantley for any length of time would help Houston’s offense against the Twins’ all right-handed starting rotation, but given the uncertainty surrounding his daily availability, it invited wonder whether the Astros could opt for more position player coverage on the bench.
Brown did not sound like someone preparing for such a scenario. He cited Mauricio Dubón’s ability to play both infield and outfield along with Jake Meyers’ experience in center field before deeming the team “covered in terms of outfielders.”
Brantley is pigeonholed into two positions: left field and designated hitter. The matchups are conducive for Brantley to start each game at either of the two spots.
Whether he will is a mystery. Baker prefers Dubón in center field behind ace Justin Verlander, who will start Game 1. If Dubón starts in center field and pushes Chas McCormick to left field, Baker would have to choose between Brantley and Yordan Alvarez at designated hitter.
Brown intimated the Astros will not carry three catchers on their ALDS roster, which will make it more difficult for Baker to deploy rookie slugger Yainer Diaz. Houston has minor-league catchers César Salazar and Andrew Knapp working out with their taxi squad player pool, but Brown didn’t envision either man making the roster.
“We talked about it a little bit, but it’s in my belief that it’d be hard for me to go with the three catchers,” Brown said. “I know we’ve had some conversations to figure out whether this is worthwhile to go in that direction, but I would say we’re probably not going to do it this time.”
Veteran Martín Maldonado is all but guaranteed to catch Verlander and Framber Valdez during the first two games of the series. Coupled with the aforementioned Alvarez/Brantley dynamic at designated hitter, it’s almost impossible to draw up a scenario where Diaz starts in either of the first two games.
“It’s Dusty’s decision. I like when Diaz is in the lineup, whether it’s DH or catching, but it’s pretty much Dusty’s decision,” Brown said, reiterating what he’s said for almost four months. “He’s been calling it like he sees it the whole way through the year. I like when Diaz is in there. I think Dusty likes it, too, but I think Dusty also likes Maldy’s game-calling and him being a general on the field. I think when you get to this point and you have good people on the bench, it means the team is really good.”
Back to the bullpen
Despite his encouraging emergency start during the team’s final series of the regular season, José Urquidy will return to a relief role in the ALDS, Brown revealed on Thursday.
Before Brown spoke, Baker announced the obvious: Verlander will start Game 1 on Saturday at Minute Maid Park and Valdez will follow him in Game 2.
Putting Urquidy back in the bullpen almost ensures Cristian Javier will start Game 3 at Target Field on Tuesday, but does raise questions about what the Astros may do if the series extends any further.
If he’s not used in either of the first three games, Urquidy could conceivably still be an option to start Game 4. Rookie J.P. France, whom Urquidy started in place of last week against the D-Backs, is back with the team following his family emergency and authored a far more consistent season than Urquidy.
Urquidy fired six scoreless innings in place of France during Houston’s 2-1 win against Arizona last week. He is still not stretched out beyond 70 or so pitches, which perhaps precipitated the team’s decision to use him as a reliever.
“But you never know, (a) guy could come up sore, something could happen,” Brown said. “Urquidy stepped up for us in that big start, that was exciting. He hasn’t been like that the entire year, but that was a huge start.”
France or Urquidy could be the team’s choice if the Astros are ahead in the series headed into a possible Game 4. If Houston faces elimination, though, throwing Verlander on short rest could become an option with Valdez waiting on full rest for Game 5.
Details are still being finalized, but Brown said he will make at least six promotions within his existing baseball operations staff when the season ends.
Brown inherited most of his baseball operations staff upon his arrival in January. Special assistant Russ Bove, a longtime scout, is Brown’s lone outside hire in his first season as Houston’s general manager.
“They have some good people in-house,” Brown said. “When I first came here, I was thinking, ‘Oh man, am I going to be in a situation where I’m going to have to start bringing in people that I know and my people.’ Then I got here and worked with these guys and (found) out we have a lot of good people here and so there’s going to be at least six promotions within the front office. I think they do a lot of good here and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people here.”
(Top photo of Brantley: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)