Garner begins extensive pitching plan
Many candidates set to compete as pitchers, catchers report
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- As pitchers and catchers filtered into the Astros' clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium on Thursday, manager Phil Garner looked over his roster and listed all who may have a shot to be the No. 4 or 5 starter when camp breaks at the end of March.
Right now, the list is long, and Garner's mind is wide open. He gives Wandy Rodriguez a slight advantage because of experience, but he's clearly not committing to any scenario as pitchers and catcher prepare for their first group workout on Friday.
"We're going to have to make decisions fairly quick," Garner said. "But we still want to give guys a chance to pitch and have an opportunity to kind of get themselves in shape and see what they can do."
The list of candidates is extensive. Garner rattled off the usual suspects -- Matt Albers, Chris Sampson, Brian Moehler, Fernando Nieve and Dave Borkowski. But he also mentioned Ezequiel Astacio and Stephen Randolph as pitchers he wanted to take a look at, too.
Then there's the next tier of pitchers -- those who have impressed Garner at some point in the past, but probably aren't quite ready for the Major Leagues just yet. Jimmy Barthmaier. Miguel Asencio. Paul Estrada. Juan Gutierrez. And top pitching prospect Troy Patton, who received a late invitation to Major League Spring Training at the end of the Nolan Ryan Elite Camp.
"They probably won't make the team out of Spring Training," Garner said. "We want to take a look at them."
Garner isn't just keeping his eye out for viable starters. The relievers called in to carry the team through the middle innings until the ball goes to Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge will be asked at times to pitch multiple innings, and Garner's looking for some durability there.
"I call it the fourth and fifth spot in the bullpen," Garner said. "Those are going to be critical spots in our bullpen. We're going to need to see how that fits, too. There may be a guy that's the odds-on favorite to be the fourth or fifth starter, but he may be the better fit to be the guy to pitch in the 'pen. To me, that's going to be just as critical as the fifth starter, maybe more."
Garner carries a similar philosophy regarding a second lefty in the bullpen. He's not looking for a one-batter specialist as much as he'd like someone who can pitch a full inning or more.
"He would need to get us out of an inning, complete another inning, and be able to do that on back-to-back days," Garner said. "That would be my ideal situation, to carry a couple left-handers that can do that."
Thursday was relatively slow, considering players filtered in and out all day to officially report to Spring Training. Jason Jennings was the first to the clubhouse, arriving sometime around 7:30 a.m. to begin his workouts. With young kids, Jennings explained, he's awake at the crack of dawn anyway.
More players showed up throughout the morning, including Lidge, Wheeler, Qualls, Borkowski, Nieve, Eric Munson and Hector Gimenez, just to name a few. Most worked out or played catch and exited pretty quickly, realizing they had a full 44 days in Kissimmee and will have plenty of time to hang around the clubhouse.
Roy Oswalt checked in later in the afternoon, staying only about 10 minutes.
The full slate of pitchers and catchers will gather Friday morning -- 28 pitchers and six catchers. Garner plans to give a short pep talk but will save his really inspirational prose for when the full squad gets together next week.
"Tomorrow's a small deal," he said.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.