Even the World Champion Houston Astros aren’t immune from the injury wave rampaging through the ranks of players who skipped spring training for the World Baseball Classic.
Star second baseman José Altuve is the latest to suffer a serious injury during the past week, joining Edwin Diaz of the New York Mets and Freddie Freeman of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Altuve, playing for Venezuela, suffered a broken hand when hit by a pitch Saturday night and will be out indefinitely.
Diaz will miss the season after hurting his knee while celebrating a win in the WBC, while Freeman took himself out of the tournament after injuring his hamstring while playing for Canada. He’s hoping to be ready by Opening Day March 30.
As a result of these and lesser mishaps, the timing of the 20-team tournament is under fire because it takes players away from their teams during spring training. Even though it is played once every three years (with time out in 2020 because of COVID-19), critics have suggested it be played in November, when major-league teams are trying to sell tickets for the following season.
The WBC, last played in 2017, runs from March 8-21 and is played in various ballparks before the championship game at Miami’s LoanDepot Park. Players are paid to participate and insured against injury.
The Altuve injury is a serious blow to the Astros, who are not only seeking to keep their World Series crown but also to reach the American League Championship Series for the seventh straight season. No team has won consecutive world championships since the New York Yankees took three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
Altuve will need surgery to repair the hand, according to Astros general manager Dana Brown, and could be out for months.
The little leadoff man, the shortest man in the majors at 5’6″ tall, is a three-time American League batting champion who once led the league in hits four years in a row. He has spent his entire career with the Astros, who gave him a seven-year, $163.5 million contract good through the 2024 season.
Since breaking into the big leagues in 2011, Altuve has been a durable player, missing time only in 2014, when he had a hamstring injury.
The pint-sized slugger has twice hit 31 home runs during the regular season but is even more deadly in the post-season, with 23 home runs in 79 games.
Altuve has a career batting average of .307, along with an on-base percentage of .362 and OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .830.
A two-time league leader in stolen bases, he has scored at least 100 runs in a season three times. Last year, he hit .300 with 28 home runs and 18 stolen bases. He is also a strong defender at second base.
Altuve’s resume looks like it belongs to a future Hall of Famer. An eight-time All-Star, he has also been American League Most Valuable Player, AL Championship Series MVP, a two-time world champion, and the winner of a Gold Glove Award. He has won six Silver Sluggers as the best hitter at his position.
Altuve, who turns 33 in May, is showing no signs of slowing down.
Replacing him won’t be easy. Candidates range from David Hensley, Rylan Bannon, and Mauricio Dubon on the 40-man Houston varsity to non-roster player Dixon Machado. The versatile Dubon has the most experience of that group.
Brown could also scour what’s left of the free agent market, which still includes four-time Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, or swing a trade with another club.
Targets could include Gleyber Torres or Isaih Kiner-Kalefa, who played second and short for the Yankees last year but are being pushed by rookies Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza.
Houston’s 2023 roster will certainly look different from the one that won the World Series from Philadelphia last fall.
Gone are such key contributors as pitcher Justin Verlander, who jumped to the Mets via free agency after winning the American League’s Cy Young Award; catcher Christian Vasquez, now with Minnesota; first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who signed with Miami; and outfielder Trey Mancini, who joined the Chicago Cubs.
Even without Altuve, the Astros still have a strong attack, led by Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and newly-signed José Abreu. Because of the injuries and free agent defections, however, the team may have a tough time approaching its 106-56 record of last season.