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Spring Training Notes: Hinch Seeks To Make Whitley, Bukauskas ‘Uncomfortable’

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(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Forrest Whitley and J.B. Bukauskas both reached Double-A last year and put themselves on the radar for the majors this season.

As spring training games begin, Astros manager A.J. Hinch has a plan to test just how ready the touted pitching prospects really are.

“I want to make them uncomfortable and get them in an environment that they haven’t been in before,” Hinch said prior to Saturday’s spring training opener. “Obviously, the faster that they get acclimated to what we expect here, the more likely they are to be an answer if we need someone to call up.”

Whitley and Bukauskas were the Astros’ first-round picks in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The 6-foot-7 Whitley is the top pitching prospect in baseball, while Bukauskas posted a 2.14 ERA with 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings across four levels of the minors last season.

Both are in big league camp for the first time. Bukauskas is scheduled to make his spring training debut Sunday, and Whitley is scheduled to make his first appearance Monday.

The primary component of Hinch’s plan to make the duo “uncomfortable” is when he will deploy them in games. Both are scheduled to be the Astros' second pitcher used in their initial outings, meaning they will face big leaguers right out of the gate.

“We have to put them in at the beginning of games as opposed to later when they’re facing guys that maybe they’ve faced in Double-A or the Arizona Fall League or something like that,” Hinch said. “There’s something about stepping in and there’s Paul Goldschmidt on the other side. That’s something they’ve never done before.

“We take for granted because we’re so comfortable around here having done it everyday. That’s a step in the development of these young pitchers.”

Whitley, for his part, welcomes the challenge.

“I’ve never really been a guy who pays attention to the guy who’s in the box . . . but at the same time, you can’t hide the fact it’s pretty cool to face a guy that’s a pretty established hitter in the league,” Whitley said. “Hopefully I get him.”

KIEBOOMS GO KABOOM

Spencer and Carter Kieboom are the rare pair of brothers who are prospects in the same organization. In Saturday’s spring opener, they provided a glimpse of the power that runs in the family.

Spencer, a 27-year-old catcher, launched a mammoth three-run home run that cleared the lawn seating at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and landed beyond the pedestrian concourse in left field.

One inning later, Carter, a 21-year-old shortstop and the Nationals' No. 2 prospect, led off with a scorched double into the left-center gap.

“We were pumped,” said Carter, the No. 41 prospect in the BA Top 100. “It was a 'Hell yeah' kind of thing. I was pumped for him and he was happy for me. That was a pretty cool couple of innings right there.”

The extra-base hits came in the first spring training at-bats for each of the brothers. It is the first time they’ve ever been teammates, owing to their six-year age difference.

“It’s awesome,” Carter said. “I never would have thought this would have happened until we got older and realized this could actually be a possibility. This is a pretty cool moment for us, but at the end of the day we’re both here to get ready for the long season ahead and whatever happens, happens.”

DEREK FISHER GOES ALL-NATURAL

Astros outfielder Derek Fisher has come into camp with a revamped swing he says feels more “natural” than in years past.

Fisher, the Astros' 2014 supplemental first-round pick, adjusted his swing to get the ball the air more two years ago in Triple-A and had his best minor league season. In the majors with that lofted swing, however, he’s hit .196 with a 38 percent strikeout rate.

“I think I just tried to do too much,” said Fisher, 25. “I think I did really good things leading up and I just tried to do more. Now this past offseason I worked to get myself back to how I should be.”

Fisher declined to go into details about his swing other than to say it felt better. Hinch plans to test that out immediately.

“I’m going to get him in a lot of games early to see,” Hinch said. “A lot of the drill work that these guys do in the offseason translates well into the cage work and the BP that we see on the field. The big, big test will be once you start facing competition.”

Fisher runs the risk of getting passed up in the Astros' outfield mix if improvement doesn’t come. Michael BrantleyGeorge Springer and Josh Reddick are secure as the starters, and Tony Kemp increasingly became the favored outfield bench option last season. Now with Kyle Tucker, the No. 12 prospect in baseball, competing for an expanded role after making his major league debut last year, Fisher understood things could not continue as they were.

For Hinch, that recognition was key.

“I think that all players have a certain stubbornness when it surrounds their style of play or mechanics or things that they do well, because they’ve all dominated leagues that they’ve been in,” Hinch said. “When he’s had to return to the minor leagues and, not re-invent himself, but look himself in the mirror what adjustments he needs to make to be a more consistent performer in the big leagues. I’m proud of him for addressing that.”

CRUNCH TIME FOR A.J. REED

After receiving just three major league at-bats the last two seasons, A.J. Reed enters 2019 in a precarious position.

Once the Astros' No. 1 prospect, Reed will turn 26 in May and has no obvious spot on the roster with Yuli Gurriel and Tyler White expected to flip between first base and designated hitter. Brantley, Reddick and other veterans are the next candidates to get DH at-bats behind them, pushing Reed considerably far down the depth chart.

“I met with him at the beginning of camp, and he’s very aware of what his situation is and what he needs to do,” Hinch said. “There is a guy every year that I always say is kind of pushed around and not appreciated. I think he’s put up some really good numbers in the minors and hasn’t gotten the opportunity in the big leagues to show whether or not he can be a first base/DH in the big leagues.”

Reed hit .164 in his only extended big league time in 2016. He’s hit 62 home runs the last two seasons in Triple-A, but even Hinch admits Reed may have to go to another team to get another extended chance in the majors.

“I’m not sure this is a great team to push his way on,” Hinch said. “I mean, he can. If he comes and has a really big camp he can make things very interesting. He’s got a great mindset going into the spring that he needs to come in and do his job, and let the chips fall where they may.”

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Washington Nationals 2019 Top 30 MLB Prospects Midseason Update

Ranking the Nationals' top 30 MLB prospects midway through 2019, including rising, falling, injured and graduated players.

SIGHTS FROM SATURDAY

  • Tucker went 2-for-2 with two singles in the opener, including an impressive first at-bat where he stayed back on a 1-2 curveball from Max Scherzer and drove it into right field.
  • Nationals' No. 3 prospect Luis Garcia entered as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and went 0-for-1 with a strikeout and a walk. He struck out looking at a Jose Hernandez curveball in his first plate appearance and drew a walk against Brendan McCurry in his second. He was the designated hitter and did not play the field.
  • Astros' No. 10 prospect Bryan Abreu pitched 1.2 innings, gave up one hit and one earned run, didn’t walk anyone and struck out one. His fastball sat 89-92 mph when he came out but improved to 95-96 mph as he got loose. He backed it up with a late-breaking, 80-82 mph slider to the outside corner against righthanded batters.
  • Astros' No. 3 prospect Yordan Alvarez went 1-for-3 with a two-run single he stung back up the middle and a long flyout to left-center

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