Team USA won the WBC, beating Puerto Rico, 8-0, in the championship Wednesday. Astros manager A.J. Hinch was happy that Team USA won, but he would have been ever happier if Alex Bregman, Houston’s 22-year-old infielder, got more playing time.
“Obviously I support (the WBC),” Hinch said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It’s a major initiative for our sport, it globalizes it, all of the things you would expect – we want our sport to grow. The downside is it’s not for everybody. And look, I love Team USA, I played for team for a lot of years in my amateur days and will always support international baseball and events like this. It just has to be for the right guys. I’m glad that Bregman got to be around (Brandon) Crawford and (Nolan) Arenado and (Daniel) Murphy and (Ian) Kinsler and Paul Goldschmidt and Buster Posey. These are major, major names in our sport that he was able to be around. But to get four at-bats was difficult for a guy who’s never been through a full spring training and make a full season roster for us in the big leagues.”
On the plus side, Astros Jose Altuve, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Norichika Aoki and Luke Gregerson all got solid playing time in the WBC.
“All of those are great scenarios, and they probably played at a higher intensity than they would have here in West Palm,” Hinch said. “But Bregman being young, being brand new, going three weeks with four at-bats makes me a little bit nervous about his preparation. The kid is a great kid. He’s going to be ready, but it’s a different experience for different levels of experience. That’s where I got a little bit critical of the whole process.”
In any event, the Astros enter 2017 having finished with a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2005-06. Even better, they added some vets in the offseason, which should improve the ball club.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Hinch said. “That’s when you need your battle-tested guys that have been there before to provide some clarity in that clubhouse and some stability. We set out to try to find some left-handed bats. We claim Aoki, we sign (Josh) Reddick, we trade for (Brian) McCann, and at the very end of the offseason, we signed Beltran. I can see a little bit of a transformation in our clubhouse from a young, enthusiastic, energized sort of early-arrival team to a more balanced team. We’ll still have our energy with (George) Springer and those guys in the clubhouse, but there’s a little more formality to the structure of the clubhouse.”
Ultimately, the Astros need a bounce-back year from Dallas Keuchel. In 2015, Keuchel went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 33 games and was AL Cy Young. In 2016, he went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 26 games.
“The good version of Dallas Keuchel challenges the strike zone, he gets the ball on the ground, he also misses some bats – but all of that is predicated on strike one and challenging the strike zone,” Hinch said. “In our sport, if you get really fine and dance around the strike zone, it’s worked for a few pitches over time. You think Mark Buehrle, you think Tom Glavine – you think (of) these left-handers who can dance around the edges. Dallas (has) more of an attack mindset, attack mode. Throw strike one. If you don’t make contact early, then you’re set with two strikes and he’s got some put-away pitches. He never really got in sync (last year) with being the aggressor on the mound, and I’m not sure he was fully healthy the whole season. . . . This last start in spring training, he made the step from rehabber to competitor. That was important for him, and important for us. That’s the type of pitcher we need to go into the season. (He) has to pound the strike zone.”