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02/13/08 10:00 AM ET

Around the Horn: Bench

Veterans fill most of slots; fifth reserve spot up for grabs

HOUSTON -- Spring Training competition will focus mostly on pitching when the Astros report to Kissimmee, Fla. this week, but that doesn't mean a few position players won't be vying for jobs.

The lineup is set, for the most part, but at least one spot on the bench is up for grabs. The Astros expect to carry 12 pitchers, which means there will be room for five backup players. Catcher Brad Ausmus, infielders Geoff Blum and Mark Loretta and outfielder Darin Erstad are expected to take up four spots. The last one will be contested by a handful of young players and non-roster invitees.

"We've got some competition that's going to have to take place off the bench," general manager Ed Wade said. "We're going to have some decisions to make."

Three players currently on the Astros' 40-man roster will receive consideration. Outfielder Reggie Abercrombie, plucked off waivers from the Marlins early in the offseason, and catcher Humberto Quintero are both out of options on their contracts, which means the Astros risk losing them if they don't make the team out of Spring Training.

Outfielder Yordany Ramirez, who has no Major League experience, will also be in the mix for a backup job. His defensive abilities have drawn rave reviews from observers within the organization, including Jeff Bagwell, who after watching Ramirez during the Elite Camp said the 23-year-old outfielder reminded him of Andruw Jones.

Six non-roster invitees with varying degrees of experience will compete for bench jobs, including Jose Cruz Jr., son of first base coach Jose Cruz. The 33-year-old Cruz has played 11 years in the big leagues, most recently for the Padres in 2007. He has a career average of .248.

Tomas Perez, who played for Wade's former team in Philadelphia, has received ample playing time at second, short and third during his 11-year big league career, and Lance Niekro, a first baseman, could provide a late-game defensive replacement option while receiving an occasional spot start to spell Lance Berkman.

Houston Astros
Catchers: Towles stakes his claim
Corner IF: Veterans to anchor corners
Middle IF: Fresh faces up middle
Outfielders: Bourn's speed fills need
Starters: Oswalt leads the way
Bullpen: Hurlers set to compete
DH/Bench: One spot up for grabs
Outfielders Victor Diaz, Nick Gorneault and David Newhan will also attend Spring Training as non-roster invitees with hopes of cracking the 25-man roster.

Realistically, of course, there's only room for one more bench player. The majority of the group of hopefuls will start the season at Triple-A, while others could be released. But Wade is attempting to create depth in the system, and having so many players who can play a number of different positions is a plus.

"The versatility factor is huge for us," Wade said. "Carrying 12 pitchers, you need to have a five-man bench and at least one has to be a backup catcher. You have to have versatility."

Wade is also pleased with the composition of the bench players who are already guaranteed jobs. Ausmus will probably serve as Wandy Rodriguez's personal catcher this year, and he could accrue more playing time should projected No. 1 catcher J.R. Towles struggle.

Blum and Loretta can fill in at all infield positions, including shortstop. That could come into play later in the season if Miguel Tejada's off-the-field issues force him to miss playing time. The Astros do not anticipate having to replace Tejada, who is under investigation by the Department of Justice for possibly lying to congressional committee members three years ago regarding his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In January, manager Cecil Cooper listed Blum, Loretta and second baseman Kazuo Matsui as possible replacements for Tejada at shortstop.

Erstad, the only Major Leaguer in history to win Gold Gloves as both an outfielder and infielder, is a solid backup option at all three outfield positions and could factor into a larger role should Bourn struggle.

"I'm excited about the composition of the bench," Wade said. "I think we've got the perfect combination of experience and ability." We need some guys who are capable of maybe sitting three or four days without playing. If our lineup is what we think it's going to be, we're not going to be pinch-hitting a lot."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.