HOUSTON — Corey Julks grew up going to Astros games. Now, he will make the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career, donning the jersey for his hometown team.
Neither Julks nor catcher César Salazar were on the 40-man roster entering Spring Training, but both performed well enough during Grapefruit League play to make Houston’s Opening Day roster.
Julks, the No. 30 Astros prospect per MLB Pipeline, went to Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, Texas, which sits about 30 minutes southeast of Minute Maid Park. He played college ball at University of Houston, where he earned First Team All-Conference honors during his sophomore and junior years.
Upon learning the news that he had made the Opening Day roster, the 27-year-old felt nothing but “pure excitement.” It’s a special, full-circle moment for Julks, who shared that Minute Maid Park was the only Major League stadium he could remember attending.
“Being a 5-year-old playing a game, and now, being able to say I made the Opening Day roster, dream come true,” said Julks. “It’s awesome — getting the opportunity to play for my hometown team. Watching them when I was a kid and now actually playing for them, I’m at a loss for words.”
Julks hit 31 home runs and had 89 RBIs while batting .270 last season with Triple-A Sugar Land. This spring, he hit .275 (11-for-40) with two home runs and 12 RBIs.
“He deserved it,” said manager Dusty Baker. “He’s come a long way. It hasn’t been easy. He hit 30 home runs last year. It’s hard to take that away from him. He’s worked hard on his defense. He’s worked hard on his throwing. You prefer a left-hander, but then, that’s only a side of a plate. If you can hit, you can hit on either side. We feel he can hit.”
As for why Julks made the team over another non-roster invitee to Spring Training, outfielder Justin Dirden (No. 9 Astros prospect), general manager Dana Brown believed that Dirden needed more at-bats at Triple-A, where he played just 32 games last season. Dirden had a very good spring, batting .324 (11-for-34) with two home runs.
“Julks had performed a lot in Triple-A,” said Brown. “They both are very talented outfielders who we feel like will be a big part of this moving forward. We felt like Julks had more Minor League experience and put up big numbers in Triple-A.”
As for Salazar, he was surprised to make the Opening Day roster.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” said Salazar. “I came here to Spring Training to do my job and try to show that I can help the team win. It is unreal. It’s an unreal feeling.”
Salazar described himself as an “emotional” but “good mess,” before Houston’s final exhibition against Sugar Land on Tuesday when he received the news.
“They played it cool,” he said, speaking on the poker-faced deliveries of Baker and Brown. “Dana played it very cool, then he told me that I made the roster at the end. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was in a dream.”
Salazar hit .265 with 16 home runs and 60 RBIs combined at Double-A Corpus Christi and Sugar Land in ‘22. During the spring, he was 6-for-21 with a home run.
According to Brown, Salazar was selected over catcher Korey Lee (No. 7 Astros prospect) because Lee needs consistent playing time. Lee went 4-for-25 with four RBIs with the Astros last season.
“At the end of the day, Korey has to play every day,” said Brown. “He’s a prospect. He’s a big-time, frontline guy with some power, so you can’t have guys like that sitting on the bench at the Major League level, so you have to give him playing time. Whereas Salazar is a backup catcher, and he fills that role better.”
In addition to Julks and Salazar, catcher Yainer Diaz (No. 2 Astros prospect) and pitchers Seth Martinez and Ronel Blanco made the Opening Day roster. The final decisions were very difficult, Brown said.
“That’s why we took it down to the wire,” he admitted. “I told all the guys when they came in, ‘Look, when you’re playing for a championship team, it’s not easy to make that team. I know some of you guys may be everyday players or extra players on some other rosters, but when the team is this good, it’s very difficult to make this team.’ I think all of them were positive and will go back to Triple-A and be ready to play when called on.”