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Dusty Baker tinkering with Astros’ leadoff man

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros

Mar 25, 2022; West Palm Beach, Florida, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) connects for an RBI double in the third inning of the game against the New York Mets during spring training at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

JUPITER, Fla. -- Dusty Baker is tinkering with his lineup and wants to avoid hitting Jose Altuve leadoff.

Houston’s manager primarily batted the three-time American League batting champion first last year, but Baker says the 5-foot-6 Altuve isn’t all that fond of the leadoff spot.

“Actually, Altuve led off because everybody asked him to lead off, not because that’s where he feels comfortable,” Baker said. “You assume he’s leading off because he’s shorter in stature. That’s not right. I want guys to feel comfortable where they hit.”

Baker thinks Altuve’s free-swinging approach is better suited to the second spot in the order.

“This guy goes up there to hit,” Baker said. “There’s a lot of times, if he makes an out on the first pitch, then that second hitter’s got to take the next pitch, or else the pitcher has two pitches and two outs in the first inning.”

The 31-year-old second baseman hit leadoff in all 144 games he started last season, leading the Astros to their third World Series appearance in five years. In his career, the seven-time All-Star has started 530 games hitting second - six more times than he’s hit leadoff.

Altuve primarily batted second during the Astros’ 2019 run to the World Series. He hit third 104 times in 2017, the year Houston won its title and Altuve was named American League MVP. Baker has slotted Altuve second in all three of his Grapefruit League appearances this spring.

“If I lead off, I lead off,” Altuve said. “If I hit second, I hit second. I don’t care. I just really enjoy playing in this lineup.”

Altuve’s career .308 batting average includes 164 home runs. He’s also stolen 261 bases, though only 13 of those have come over the past three seasons.

Shortstop Jeremy Pena, Carlos Correa’s likely replacement, hit leadoff on Sunday for the second time since Baker started playing major leaguers in Grapefruit League games this spring. He led off the game by ripping Miami pitcher Jesus Luzardo’s first offering into left field for a single.

Primarily a No. 2 hitter in the minors, Pena was thrown out trying to steal second before Altuve delivered his second hit of the spring.

Altuve followed Pena’s third-inning single with a sacrifice fly, driving in the game’s first run.

“He looks good,” Altuve said of Pena. “He’s a great hitter, great offensive player, great overall player.”

Baker has also slotted outfielder Chas McCormick at leadoff this spring.

“I’m trying things,” Baker said. “That’s what spring training’s all about. I’m trying as many things as I can in this short period of time.”