3/26/2014 10:21 P.M. ET
Appel faces first big league hitters in game setting
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It wasn't quite pitching at Minute Maid Park in the regular season, but No. 1 Draft pick Mark Appel got a chance to perform under the lights and in a big league game for the first time Wednesday night at Osceola County Stadium.
Appel, who was behind schedule all spring after undergoing an appendectomy in late January, threw a scoreless inning in relief in his first appearance in a Grapefruit League game. He allowed one hit and struck out two batters.
"It was fun," Appel said. "You always look forward to that first Major League game whenever you're a kid. Even though it was a Spring Training game, it was still important, in my mind. I tried to prepare for it just like any other game. It was fun to face big league guys."
Appel admitted there were butterflies.
"Absolutely," he said. "You always get a little nerves going, a little bit of anxiety when you step on the mound. I know Spring Training is winding down, but for me, it was my first time out. It was a lot of fun."
Next up for Appel will be an ever bigger start. He's tentatively scheduled to start Sunday's exhibition finale at Minute Maid Park against Veracruz of the Mexican League.
"It'll be great," Appel said "I'm real excited to pitch on Sunday, to pitch at Minute Maid in front of my family and hometown fans. It'll be a lot of fun, just having that opportunity to work on my game and play for the Astros."
Appel grew up in Houston as an Astros fan and pretty much has his entire family living in the area, so he'll have a huge cheering section. After that game, he'll likely head to Lancaster for his first full professional season in Class A ball.
"I'll probably have a decent contingent [at Sunday's game]," Appel said. "All my grandparents, my family, aunts, uncles, cousins -- they all live in Houston. I think most of them will be able to come out and watch, and we'll probably be able to grab some dinner afterward. I'm real excited to be able to pitch in Houston."
As far as reaching Houston, it's unlikely the Astros would add him to the 40-man roster this season. Appel is focused on the now.
"My mentality is to go out and give them a reason to call me up," he said. "That's kind of my mentality. There's so many things out of my control. I don't want it to be given to me because I was a high draft pick. I want to earn everything that I'm given."
Grossman slotted in as Astros' No. 2 hitter
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The one certainty manager Bo Porter had entering Spring Training has changed, thanks to Robbie Grossman.
Porter, who proclaimed in the winter that Dexter Fowler would hit leadoff, Jose Altuve would bat second and Jason Castro would hit third, said Wednesday that Grossman has played his way into the No. 2 spot in the order behind Fowler. Altuve and Castro would hit third and fourth against left-handers, and flip those spots against right-handers.
"That combination will be our top four," Porter said.
Grossman, a switch-hitter, said he doesn't care where he hits in the lineup.
"I put in a lot of work in the offseason and came down here to play and have good success," he said. "It really doesn't mean anything. I'm just excited for the season to start."
Grossman has been a high-on-base player throughout the Minor Leagues (.381 OBP in Minor League career), and last season he posted a .332 on-base percentage in his Major League debut, including .351 after he was called up for his second stint.
"That thinking has changed a little bit, just looking at Fowler and Grossman as two guys that get on base at a high percentage and, again, just trying to get as many guys on base in front of arguably our best two hitters, Jason and Altuve," Porter said. "It's about lineup construction and putting yourself in the best position to score runs, given the opponent and the pitcher we're facing that night."
Porter also said Chris Carter would hit fifth when Altuve hits fourth with hopes he'll get more fastballs.
"When we have that right-hander going and you have Altuve in the four hole, it kind of puts one of our best basestealers in front of Chris Carter, which we believe will also help the pitch sequence he will receive, having a basestealer in front of him," Porter said.
Harrell, Keuchel in Astros' starting rotation
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Just moments after the Astros wrapped up Grapefruit League play with a win over the Mets on Wednesday, manager Bo Porter announced right-hander Lucas Harrell and left-hander Dallas Keuchel would handle the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.
Scott Feldman will start Opening Day on Tuesday against the Yankees, followed by Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer. Harrell will start April 4 against the Angels and Keuchel on April 5.
Harrell and Keuchel were battling with Jerome Williams and Brad Peacock, but those two were informed they will begin the season in the bullpen. Porter thought both Harrell and Keuchel were more effective as starters than relievers last season.
Harrell was 1-2 with a 7.50 ERA in 15 innings this spring, allowing 24 hits and striking out three batters. Keuchel worked 17 spring innings and gave up 25 hits and 11 earned runs for a 5.82 ERA.
"When you look at the complete body of work, Jerome has done both, and when you look at Lucas and Keuchel, we had Lucas in the bullpen last year, and we felt he was much better suited as a starting pitcher," Porter said. "A guy who's a sinkerballer, he needs to wear down a little bit.
"You look at Dallas, we just felt the time he spent in the rotation was much better than the time he spent in the bullpen. I felt Peacock has that power stuff that could play as a long reliever, or in a situation where the starter gives us extended innings, he's another option in short relief as well."
Harrell posted a 5.98 ERA in 22 starts in 2013 and had a 5.49 ERA in 39 1/3 innings in relief. Keuchel had a 4.90 ERA in 22 starts and a 6.75 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. Williams went 8-10 with a 5.06 ERA in 25 starts for the Angels last season and posted a 2.35 ERA in 30 2/3 innings in relief.
"Jerome was here to do whatever it is that we need to do in order to win baseball games," Porter said. "Like I said to him, look at the number of starting pitchers we went through last year. This is where we're at today, and that could change a week from now, I don't know."
The Astros used 10 different starters last year.
Astros waiting to see options before setting roster
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros had yet to set their 25-man roster by Wednesday afternoon. General manager Jeff Luhnow said earlier in the week he would like to have the roster set by the time the Astros head to San Antonio on Thursday for a pair of exhibitions against the Rangers.
Houston manager Bo Porter said the roster hadn't been set because the Astros could grab someone on waivers. They have the first shot to claim someone on waivers because they had the worst record in the big leagues last season.
"When you get to this time of year, there's going to be players that are going to become available," Porter said. "Fortunately or unfortunately, we do have the No. 1 pick on a waiver claim, because of our finish last year. We're going to explore all the opportunities that may present themselves. You never know. It may affect our roster as it stands today."
Two years ago, the Astros claimed outfielder Justin Maxwell early in the season, so Luhnow isn't shy about making a claim.
"Each of them comes with a cost, because you have to claim them and put them your roster and take somebody off," Luhnow said. "We evaluate that. I will tell you these days we're meeting every day at least once, probably twice, as a staff and do our research. This is the time of year with clubs setting their 25-man roster in the next couple of days, every guy that's out of options is available."
The Astros have 26 healthy players in camp, so they have one remaining cut to make, which will be catcher Carlos Perez. The Astros announced after Wednesday's game that the final spots in the starting rotation will be filled by Lucas Harrell and Dallas Keuchel, with Jerome Williams and Brad Peacock heading to the bullpen.
Astros to have unique end-of-spring schedule
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros will work out Thursday morning in Kissimmee, Fla., before flying to San Antonio for a pair of exhibition games against the Rangers, to be played Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Manager Bo Porter and most of the starting players will return to Houston on Saturday for exhibition games against Veracruz of the Mexican League on Saturday and Sunday.
Porter said most of the players who are earmarked to start the season in Double-A Corpus Christi will stay in San Antonio for Saturday's game before heading south. Most of the players heading to Triple-A Oklahoma City will come to Houston and play in Sunday's game.
Porter said infielders Marwin Gonzalez and Jesus Guzman, along with pitcher Anthony Bass, are among the players who will stay in San Antonio for Saturday's game against the Rangers.
Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft, had been listed to start Sunday in Houston, but Porter said that might not be the case.
"There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of names," he said. "It's not every day you have a split-squad in two different places three days before Opening Day. It's pretty challenging for everyone, trying to get it all worked out."
Palm Beach remains Astros' priority spring locale
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Don Miers, the sports facility manager for Osceola County Stadium, said Wednesday the county would be open to making improvements to keep the Astros from moving their Spring Training operations to another location when their lease expires in 2016.
Miers said the Astros and the county have resumed talks about the possibility of the club staying in Kissimmee, but club owner Jim Crane has made it clear he wants to move to Palm Beach County in southeast Florida and build a two-team facility with another team.
"The team has acknowledged we're an option," Miers said. "Mr. Crane has sent his attorney in to talk with one of our commissioners, and [president of business operations] Reid Ryan and I have had conversations. So anything's possible."
Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe, who's spearheading the team's spring relocation efforts, said in an email that the team's priority remains Palm Beach County.
"We have been very forthright in telling everyone that we are continuing to pursue a new complex in Palm Beach County," Kibbe wrote. "If we're unable to get that done, we will definitely renew discussions with Osceola County, and we will give Arizona further consideration. The Osceola County representatives and stadium staff have been very understanding and professional throughout this period. We have a tremendous amount of respect for them and the work they've done in Kissimmee."
The Astros' biggest issue with Osceola County Stadium is that it isn't located close to any major hotels, which makes for a long commute to and from the park for some players, coaches and staff. Miers said the county would be willing to renovate the stadium or do any other upgrades the team wants.
"If they can get a hotel closer to the site, then we can do whatever they need as far as improvements, whether it's taking down the stadium and making it larger and with different fan amenities," Miers said. "I think we're open to do whatever it takes to keep them here."
The county nearly had a deal to bring the Nationals aboard to share the site with the Astros last year, but it fell through. Miers said adding a second team could help keep Spring Training baseball in the area. The Braves are a short drive from Osceola County, and Nats are less than an hour away in Viera.
"The big challenge is nobody wants to be the last team here in this area," Miers said. "Between Atlanta, the Nationals and Astros, you have to keep two or all three of them, because nobody wants to be by themselves, because then you'd be the farthest to travel.
"If we could do a deal with the Astros and Nationals, great. If we could add a third team in the mix and keep the Braves in Osceola County -- not so much at Disney, but if they would come down this way and we could do something here to accommodate two teams and go across the street."
Any expansions or renovations of the current facility would require a significant financial investment.
Oberholtzer joins 'Strike Out Cancer' effort
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- When he heard other Major League players were joining with Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte to don "Strike Out Cancer" T-shirts in their own team colors to help fight cancer, Astros pitcher Brett Oberholtzer joined the cause.
The effort started small last spring with 300 shirts that Motte planned to pass out to friends and teammates. He hoped to sell a few, too, at his fall fundraiser to raise money for a cancer center in the Memphis, Tenn., area to which he and his wife had a personal connection.
Fans who saw Motte donning the shirt let him know they'd like one in their team's colors. That got him to thinking: If this plan worked for him and his charity, maybe it could benefit other players' charities in other markets as well. So Motte started to recruit late last season.
"It's always been something I've wanted to do, to give back in some way, so I felt like a good way to start was to give my time and effort to raise awareness and money for a cancer foundation," said Oberholtzer, who's father, Fred, had leukemia.
The website 108stitches.com went live on March 17, with 108 Stitches showcasing the "Strike Out Cancer" tees in each team's colors. Each is promoted by a different player who agreed to join Motte in a partnership that will benefit multiple charities. Each participating player has chosen a charity that will benefit from the T-shirts sales, and for each shirt sold, $5 will go to the Jason Motte Foundation and $5 to a charity of that player's choice. A full list of recipient charities will be listed on the 108 Stitches website soon, along with a photo of each player rep in his team-colored shirt.
"At the end of the day, it's about reaching people," Motte said. "Baseball is great and everything, but there are other really important things going on out there that affect a lot of people. Wearing these T-shirts shows people that they're not alone. They're not sitting there doing chemo by themselves where no one cares. People do care, whether it's friends, family or baseball players. There are people who this has touched and this has affected. This is something we're trying to do to get the word out there and try to raise money to help."
The charity Oberholtzer chose was an organization that researches leukemia.
"More and more players nowadays are giving back with all the money they're making," he said. "We did offseason work at the Ronald McDonald Houston in Houston, visiting people. It's not only beneficial for them to see us, but also for us to bring to light what other people are going through on a day-to-day basis."