Astros slugging outfielder eyes healthy return in 2015
By Brian McTaggart
HOUSTON -- A year ago, George Springer had never been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He had yet to make highlight-reel catches at Minute Maid Park, and he had yet to bash seven homers in a seven-game span in May en route to winning the American League Rookie of the Month Award.
Entering spring camp last year, Springer was still a prospect on the rise and the man all Astros fans were clamoring to see. They'd have to wait until mid April to witness the high-flying outfielder in Houston. He certainly didn't disappoint by turning in a promising rookie campaign that sets him up for even bigger things in 2015.
Springer, 25, will report to Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., in about two weeks as one of the key cogs in new manager A.J. Hinch's lineup. He still has plenty to prove to himself, the Astros and everybody else. But he won't be fighting for a job like he was a year ago. Springer has arrived.
"I can't wait," he said. "I didn't play for three months, and I've been itching to play."
Springer missed the final 64 games last season with a left quad strain. He plays baseball with a high motor, so not being able to run onto the field for so long has him extra eager to start camp healthy.
"I've had a chance to get strong again and just get myself in shape to play," Springer said.
Houston played it safe with Springer, who could be a franchise cornerstone for years to come. He plays the game with such high intensity that allowing him to get on the field before the leg was 100 percent was a risk the club decided wasn't worth it.
It was a frustrating exercise for Springer and Astros fans, whose appetite for Springer was whetted when he hit 20 homers and drove in 51 runs in just 78 games while making 78 starts, including 70 in right field. He set franchise rookie records for home runs (19) and RBIs (50) prior to the All-Star break, and it appeared as though he would make a push for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
As he got himself in shape to play this winter, Springer watched what the Astros were doing with great interest. There could be as many as four new bats in the lineup with the additions of outfielder Colby Rasmus, shortstop Jed Lowrie, third baseman Luis Valbuena and slugger Evan Gattis, who figures to play a number of positions.
"It's been exciting," Springer said. "There's obviously some guys who have done some things. I've played against pretty much all of them. It's exciting to have them here."
Perhaps the most encouraging part for Springer is it means more guys who have legitimate home run power behind AL batting champ Jose Altuve. Springer should be in the middle a formidable group of big bats in the lineup.
"They're going to help the team," Springer said. "Those guys, obviously, can hit the ball out of the park on any swing. It's obviously going to be great to have them -- and obviously with Jose, he's always on base. Hopefully between [Chris] Carter, Gattis and everybody else, we'll hit them out of the ballpark this year."
With the added power will come more strikeouts, an area in which Springer will need to improve after striking out 114 times in 345 plate appearances last year. In fact, five of the nine hitters in Houston's lineup in 2015 were among the top 20 in the Majors in strikeout percentage a year ago (minimum 300 plate appearances): Jon Singleton 37 percent (first), Springer 33 percent (seventh), Rasmus 33 percent (ninth), Carter 31.8 percent (14th) and Jason Castro 29.5 percent (19th).
When asked what he needed to work on most this spring, Springer gave a very Springer-like answer.
"Everything," he said. "There isn't one aspect of this game I can fully understand. It's one of those things you go into the offseason and you can improve upon the success and the failures."
Exactly where Springer fits in the outfield configuration and Hinch's lineup remains to be seen, but the Astros' chances to make some noise in the AL West depend as much upon him as anyone. Springer wouldn't have it any other way.