KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The battle for the fifth spot in the Astros' starting rotation is a three-man race after right-hander Dan Straily, brought to Houston in a trade with the Cubs in January, was among three players sent down from Major League camp on Monday morning.
Straily was optioned to the Minor Leagues, and right-hander Mark Appel and outfielder Andrew Aplin were reassigned, leaving the Astros with 41 players in camp two weeks shy of Opening Day.
Straily, who was competing with Roberto Hernandez, Asher Wojciechowski and Samuel Deduno for the fifth spot in the rotation, will begin the season in the rotation at Triple-A Fresno. He appeared in four games this spring, making two starts, and allowed 12 hits, seven runs and five walks in 10 2/3 innings.
"He was behind a couple of other guys," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "It's always tough to send a guy out after he pitched well [Sunday], but we looked at the set of circumstances that would lead to him being that fifth starter, and we really feel like he's a starter so we want him to go to Triple-A and be prepared."
Straily, 26, was acquired along with third baseman Luis Valbuena from the Cubs in exchange for outfielder Dexter Fowler. He had a subpar year with the A's and Cubs while battling shoulder weakness that changed his arm slot following a bang-up rookie season in which he went 10-8 with a 3.96 ERA in 27 starts for Oakland in 2013.
"He's a Major League pitcher, he's had time in the big leagues, he's had success in the big leagues and I think he will for us as well," Luhnow said. "We're going to need more than five starters this year, more than likely, and he's going to be one of the guys we rely on."
Hernandez, a nine-year veteran, is 3-0 with a 4.50 ERA in four outings (two starts) this spring, and he could have a leg up on the competition considering his experience.
"You look at what's going on with other clubs around baseball, and there's a lot of injuries, and having extra pitchers that are Major League-caliber is something we value," Luhnow said. "That's definitely a consideration."
Appel, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, appeared in three games this spring, and he gave up five hits and two earned runs in seven innings. He's likely headed to the rotation at Double-A Corpus Christi, which is where he finished last season.
"He's on a good trajectory right now after a down season last year," Luhnow said. "He ended the season strong and had a good [Arizona] Fall League and a good camp, and he's exactly where we need him to be. He's one of the top Major League starting prospects in the game, and I expect he's going to be in Houston and be close to or at the top of our rotation for many years to come."
Considering that Appel, the club's No. 2-ranked prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, appeared in only one game last Spring Training, his experience in big league camp this year was invaluable.
"I'm very blessed to be able to be here," he said. "It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about what it takes to be able to get here and stay here, and I'm going to definitely work hard to get back."