Team Of The Future?

George Springer serves notice that he'll be back quick with the Astros: Bo Porter encourages his return

George Springer serves notice that he'll be back with the Astros quick

George Springer still
George Springer knows he won't be standing still for long — the Houston  Astros' future will be here before the end of 2014. Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Bo Porter first game
Houston Astros manager Bo Porter made sure to leave George Springer with a directive. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Mark Appel
Mark Appel is already making strides from his Stanford days.
George Springer still
Bo Porter first game
Mark Appel

By the time Houston Astros manager Bo Porter strolled into the nearly vacant home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park late Sunday afternoon, outfielder George Springer had said his goodbyes. A stream of veterans paid brief visits to his locker and wished Springer well as he packed his bags and readied for departure now that the exhibition season was complete.

They mostly offered praise and encouragement yet what Porter uttered to Springer truly resonated.

"Don't take too long, all right," Porter barked across the clubhouse as he headed for an exit. Springer smiled, nodded, and replied confidently: "I won't."

Springer wasn't alone in receiving firm handshakes, warm hugs and emboldening backslaps on his way to the minors. Shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Mark Appel shared smiles and counsel with the likes of catcher Carlos Corporan, second baseman Jose Altuve, center fielder Dexter Fowler and relief pitcher Matt Albers. The veterans declared their admiration for the effort delivered by the organization's top three prospects, and while Appel, Correa and Springer failed to break camp with the Astros, their inability to do so was no failure.

To a man, the veterans wanted to make clear the expectation that all three would return to this clubhouse and occupy lockers permanently. One by one they strove to confirm to the prospects that their time would soon come.

 "Don't take too long, all right," Porter barked across the clubhouse as Springer headed for an exit.  

"When they leave here they have a sense of what it takes to play here because they get an opportunity to sit and talk to a lot of the veteran guys that have been at this level," Porter says. "If you don't have that experience it's like you don't know what you're preparing for.

"Putting them in this atmosphere gives them a sense of exactly what they're preparing for."

Correa and Springer capped a statistically pedestrian exhibition season by driving in a run apiece in a five-run seventh inning that materialized into the Astros' 6-1 victory over Veracruz Sunday afternoon. Two batters after Correa delivered a sacrifice fly to right field that scored Erik Castro, Springer reached on a four-pitch walk that pushed home Gregorio Petit. Correa and Springer finished the afternoon a combined 0-for-5 with two walks, two RBIs, a run scored and a strikeout.

Correa (.200/.250/.467) and Springer (.250/.413/.361) didn't tear the cover off the ball this spring, but that fact didn't temper fan exuberance.

While pulverizing minor league pitching to the tune of a .303/.411/.600 slash line with 37 home runs and 108 RBIs last season, Springer also stuck out in 27.3 percent of his plate appearances. If there remains one last hurdle for Springer to clear before he earns a promotion it's corralling his strikeout rate, or at least leveling the ratio between how often he whiffs and how often he walks. He accomplished that this spring, drawing 10 walks against 11 strikeouts.

An argument can be made that the Astros are doing Springer a disservice by shipping him to Oklahoma City to start the season, but the inevitability of his return provides placation. Perhaps the Astros are stalling his service clock for budgetary reasons, but with Springer featuring such an intoxicating mix of power and speed, all that stands between his rejoining the teammates he left on Sunday is buffering the few rough edges that still protrude from his game.

"Get better. Get better in all aspects of the game," Springer says of his foremost goals. "Go out and have fun, play hard but most importantly be a great teammate. Play hard for everyone who is there and try to get better along the way.

"You're obviously in a great environment (In Houston) and this is the light at the end of the end of the tunnel. The goal for every guy who is in here is to help the Houston Astros win. That's my goal and at some point the plan is to come here and play hard and have fun and help the Houston Astros win."

Given his production and age (24), Springer is almost certain to make his Astros debut this season. The same can not be said of Appel or Correa who, at 22 and 19 respectively, need additional seasoning in the minors. Appel made his first start of the spring Sunday and, following a cautious rebuild from a January appendectomy, he delivered flashes of a scouting profile that has him wedged between Correa and Springer on the Astros' prospect watch list.

Appel allowed two hits and recorded three strikeouts over three scoreless innings. He threw 36 pitches, 28 for strikes, and featured a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider. When he stumbled into trouble in his third and final inning, Appel worked around a Refugio Cervantes leadoff double by closing the frame with swinging strikeouts of Enrique Osorio and Jose Chavez. Porter used the word "compete" when evaluating Appel, and compete is what Appel did.

"The biggest challenge was competing. That was what I wanted to do," Appel says. "I didn't want to think about throwing my off-speed pitches or throwing my fastball in the right spot. When I step on the mound in a game situation it's go time. You've put in all the work and you just have to trust in your abilities, and that's what I did.

"It was extremely important, especially coming back from the surgery; it was exactly what I needed. Being able to compete, being able to go out there and just not worry about whether my side is feeling all right, if my arm is feeling healthy, but just going out and going 100 percent on every single pitch."

Because injury limited the frequency with which Appel was exposed to both curious fans and opposing hitters, his outing on Sunday marked the first in a series of baby steps toward viability. Appel must reclaim strength and stamina as a starter for High-A Lancaster before any serious conversation about his ascending the organizational ladder can be broached. There has been speculation that Appel could debut with the Astros at some point this season but that seems unlikely outside an extended stretch of exceptionality in the minors. His start at Minute Maid Park Sunday might have been his last for a long while.

Carlos Correa Mania

That reality applies to Correa, too, although predicting his distant future allows for greater uncertainty. The modest numbers Correa posted this spring did little to mute the enthusiasm over his abundant tools. His power and bat, his defensive fluidity and arm strength left observers gushing over his present and optimistic about his future. Correa carries himself with an ease that not only belies his age, but portends to his serving as a highly capable franchise face.

 Correa, the eighth-ranked prospect in all of baseball, warrants the hype and is worthy of the curiosity. 

Sunday amounted to affixing a bow atop a tantalizing exhibition season. It seems foolhardy to suggest that Correa will debut this year considering that he won't escape his teens until the final week of the regular season (Correa turns 20 on Sept. 22). All the ballyhoo and excitement over what he should one day become requires managing, but when the Astros have touted their prospects as doggedly and convincingly as they have during this protracted rebuild, asking fans to exercise restraint is a futile exercise.

Correa, the eighth-ranked prospect in all of baseball, warrants the hype and is worthy of the curiosity.

And that's what made Sunday feel special. Catching one final glimpse of Appel, Correa and Springer occupying the same field not only whet appetites, it bolstered promise. The Astros have staked much of their future on the development of their top prospects, thus when fans purchase an opportunity to evaluate their progress, the occasion is noteworthy. And, it isn't lost upon those prospects just what their union means, both in the present and the future.

"When you play your last game out here you want to work hard during the season to get back here as soon as possible," Correa says "It's great to be in this atmosphere; it's a whole different ballgame. You have a lot more fun when you're up here so it gives you motivation to work hard every single day and try to get here as quick as you can.

"You see all the talent that's in the minor leagues that's going to be here pretty soon and you get excited. Houston is going to be a winning club in the future and we're going to be a good team. We're going to be fighting for some championships in the future."