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Position battles to watch at Astros spring training

Houston Astros' Carlos Correa, from left, celebrates with George Springer, Kyle Tucker and Myles Straw after the Astros defeated the Oakland Athletics in Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series in Los Angeles, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros are back for the 2021 season after a surprising run to Game 7 of the 2020 ALCS despite a losing regular season.

Houston returns without George Springer, but with a bit more stability and further removed from the sign-stealing scandal and some major injuries. There are some big changes to watch, but also some improvements in soft spots.

Much of the 2021 Astros are set, but there are a handful of positions up for grabs.

Here’s a look at the top position battle:

Centerfielder

George Springer has been entrenched as Houston’s center fielder since 2014, with various players filling in due to injury.

Springer is now in a Blue Jays uniform and the Astros will have to find another full-time option.

Myles Straw

The Astros versatile speedster started one-third of the season in center field last year, setting up as the incumbent for the job. Myles Straw struggled in 2020 in a more expanded role, putting up a -0.4 bWAR.

Light on power, Straw used his ability to get on base in the minor leagues to justify his bat in the lineup, batting .305/.394/.773 in the minors.

Straw was able to keep his average high in AAA but has struggled to do the same in the majors. Defensively, he’s shown to be average in a small sample size.

Chas McCormick

Chas McCormick, the former 21st round pick, has worked his way up in the Astros system as a favorite high-minors outfielder. he provides some pop, with a .813 OPS in AAA.

Defensively, McCormick played 54 games in center field in the minors without committing an error. He might make the Houston bench, but is unlikely to get extended playing time in center field.

Pedro Leon

Possibly the most exciting of the Astros prospects, Houston signed Pedro Leon out of Cuba this offseason. He was an absolute monster in the Cuban National Series - the top league in the country.

Leon hit .383 with 15 home runs in 33 games in his final season before defecting from Cuba. Just 22 years old, with limited pro ball experience the range of outcomes could be wide, but as a prospect, Leon’s ceiling is far superior to Straw and McCormick.

Leon may not start the season in Houston, but don’t be surprised if he’s the team’s starting center fielder by the end of it.

Bullpen

Houston’s bullpen in 2021 looks totally different than it did in 2019 when Roberto Osuna and Will Harris were mostly responsible for the end of games in the playoffs.

In 2020, Ryan Pressly shifted from 7th and 8th innings to closer and is likely taking that role in 2021.

Assuming the Astros use roughly 8 relievers in 2021, here’s a look at who could be the key pitchers in that bullpen.

Ryan Pressly

Ryan Pressly stepped into the role in 2020 after Roberto Osuna’s injury and turned in a solid season, saving 12 of 16 chances.

Pressly struggled initially, blowing two of his first three saves before finishing the season with a 2.08 ERA from August 15th on. He was nearly flawless in the playoffs, with four saves and just one appearance that yielded runs.

Pedro Baez

The Astros were quiet this offseason but did make an impact signing in righty setup man Pedro Baez, who has been with the Dodgers his whole career and pitched to a 3.03 ERA in 355 games.

Baez was strong again last season, pitching to a 3.18 ERA as one of LA’s set up pitchers. He is likely the 8th inning guy for Houston.

Enoli Paredes

Coming into 2020 as a relative unknown, Enoli Paredes has a good chance to lock down the 7th inning role in 2021. He pitched to a 3.05 ERA but had high walk numbers in his small sample size.

Top Lefty

The return in the Jake Marisnick trade to the Mets made an immediate impact for Houston in 2020, pitching to a 2.18 ERA as the top left-handed option in the Houston bullpen.

Middle Relief

Houston gets some reinforcements in side-armers Joe Smith (2020 opt-out) and Steve Cishek (Free agent minor league deal). Both have a long MLB track record of success and will help fill in a bullpen that was low on experience in 2020.

Long Relief

Bryan Abreu is one of Houston’s top pitching prospects and may end up in the rotation if injuries happen.

Ryne Stanek was a depth signing and was an important piece of the Rays from 2017-2019. Stanek pitched for Miami in 2019 and 2020 but couldn’t find his dominant 2018 form.

Injuries to Watch

Both back-end rotation/long relief pitchers are coming off injuries and are unlikely to be ready to start the season.

The Astros have long wanted Josh James to be a major part of the pitching staff. Austin Pruitt is a local kid who can both start and pitch in relief.