DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Perhaps more than any other players in Astros camp this year, shortstop Marwin Gonzalez and pitcher Rhiner Cruz are under the microscope, thanks to their Rule 5 status.
The Astros took Cruz off the Mets roster with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft and acquired Gonzalez from the Red Sox, who took him in the Rule 5 Draft from the Cubs. Both of them must stay on the Major League roster for the entire season or the Astros will risk losing them.
"You lose a lot of flexibility by keeping the Rule 5 guys and that's something you have to put into the equation," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "You would imagine a team that lost 106 games last year would be able to find a spot [for a Rule 5 pick]. But we've got a lot of guys here we're going to be evaluating and we'll see what happens. To keep two is something very few teams are able to do."
Gonzalez, who started Saturday against the Blue Jays, is a polished defensive player who split the 2011 season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, hitting a combined .288 in 124 games with four home runs and 39 RBIs.
Cruz is a power arm who spent the 2011 season in the Mets farm system, starting at Class A Port St. Lucie (2-1, 2.77 ERA) before being promoted to Double-A Binghamton, where he was 3-2 in 36 relief appearances with a 4.14 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 39 walks. Control has been an issue early in Astros camp, too.
"He's got a good arm, but can he throw enough strikes?" Luhnow said. "He knows that and we know that, and our scouts felt he had turned the corner a little bit last year towards the end of winter ball, and we need to see evidence with that for us to be comfortable with keeping him on the roster all year."
Duke, Lyles make auditions for Astros rotation
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Astros got a good look at a pair of candidates for the starting rotation Saturday, with veteran left-hander Zach Duke and young right-hander Jordan Lyles both throwing four innings in a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays.
Duke, a non-roster invitee, allowed six hits, three runs and one walk and struck out two batters in a day that was marred by two swings of the bat -- a two-run homer by Jose Bautista in the third and a solo shot by Travis Snider in the fourth.
"I threw mostly quality pitches," Duke said. "The Bautista at-bat, obviously if this were the regular season I would have worked at it a little different knowing I had first base open. The Snider home run, I wanted to go away with a fastball and threw it down the middle and good hitters hit those pitches out. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with how it went."
Lyles gave up four hits, two runs and one walk in his outing, also surrendering a homer to Bautista in the fifth inning. Lyles is still toying with his new curveball grip and said he threw about five of those breaking pitches with good results.
"Jordan showed that curveball that we haven't seen a whole lot yet," manager Brad Mills said. "I thought he did a real good job throwing that breaking ball."
Downs prepares for role as emergency catcher
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Don't expect to see Matt Downs penciled in the lineup to start at catcher any time soon, but the versatile infielder is adding catching to his resume. Downs caught Brandon Lyon in the bullpen Thursday to get some experience in case manager Brad Mills turns to him in an emergency situation.
"He's going to be our third catcher, like he was last year," Mills said. "One of his strengths is all the positions he plays and still be able to do them well. I'm just trying to keep that door open. That's a huge plus for us to be able for to play those positions like he does."
Downs, who led the Majors in pinch-hit RBIs last year with 15, has played all four infield positions in the Majors, as well as making three starts in right field. Downs has never caught a game in professional baseball, but he's willing to do whatever it takes to improve his chances of making the team.
"Brandon Lyon took it easy on me," he said. "It wasn't like he was throwing overly nasty stuff that day. It's not going to be a situation where I get in there and start a game or call a game. If two guys were to go down, they have the comfort of knowing they have somebody who could knock the ball down back there."
Pendleton working to stick with Astros staff
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Lance Pendleton admits this season is an important one for his career, which has seen him bounce around between the Astros and Yankees organizations the last year. A nonroster invitee, Pendleton had thrown just one inning this spring entering Saturday's game, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been working.
"I worked on some things mechanically this offseason and I feel like I targeted the points I needed to work on and my bullpens and whatnot have been good," Pendleton said. "I'm happy where I am going forward and I'm going to keep working and when I get a chance to throw, I'm going to throw well."
Pendleton, 28, was in camp with the Astros last year after being taken in the Rule 5 Draft, but was sent back to the Yankees before camp was over. He pitched in 18 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and appeared in four games with the Yankees before the Astros plucked him off the waiver wire in September.
He's probably a long shot to make the club out of camp, but he could be in the rotation at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
"The past couple of years have been big years, and they keep getting bigger and bigger," Pendleton said. "We're hoping to really prove something and establish myself and get back to Houston and hopefully get a little comfortable here and solidify myself a big leaguer."
Left-hander Sergio Escalona, who has yet to appear in a spring game because of elbow discomfort, was scheduled to play catch between 60 and 90 feet Saturday with hopes of throwing in the bullpen on Sunday or Monday.
Non-roster outfielders Travis Buck and Justin Ruggiano, both of whom are nursing oblique injuries, will be available to play Sunday, manager Brad Mills said. Buck isn't scheduled to play, however, until Monday.
Kyle Weiland is scheduled to make his first spring start on the mound for the Astros on Monday. That's the rotation slot for Bud Norris, but he'll throw a simulated game instead. The Astros will use simulated games frequently to get as many pitchers as they can into spring competition.