With Opening Day three weeks away, competition (for jobs) heats up.

MLB.com beat writer Brian McTaggart took his first stab at predicting the Opening Day roster in his latest blog, and for the most part, I agree with his predictions. Mostly.

Tags notes that with three weeks left in the spring, a lot can (and probably will) change. There aren’t a ton of roster spots up for grabs this spring, but several players are making cases for themselves for the few jobs that are available.

I agree with Tags that Brian Bogusevic probably has a leg up over Jason Bourgeois for the fifth outfielder job, because he’s left-handed (even though it would be a luxury to have someone with Bourgeois’ speed on the bench). I like his bullpen mix of Brandon Lyon, Wilton Lopez, Fernando Abad, Jeff Fulchino, Mark Melancon and Henry Villar, although I am more inclined to believe Nelson Figueroa, whom Tags has benchmarked as a long reliever, will instead win the fifth starter job.

That said, I love how 20-year-old Jordan Lyles is giving the front office and coaching staff pause as he continues to pile up the quality innings this spring. He’s allowed three runs — two earned — over eight innings and had a very promising showing during a game against the Cardinals in Jupiter (where he was most impressive against the Pujols-Holliday-Berkman trifecta).

Should Lyles force his way into the rotation, that would probably push Figueroa to the bullpen and Ryan Rowland-Smith, possibly, to Triple-A. As Tags notes, the final spot in the bullpen is entirely up for grabs, with Sergio Escalona and Enerio Del Rosario quietly making cases for themselves.

As for the backup infielders, Matt Downs is having a very nice showing this spring and, I feel, has an advantage over the rest to win a roster spot. Another interesting candidate is Tommy Manzella, who has been honing his skills at second and third with hopes to find a niche on this team away from the shortstop position, now occupied by Clint Barmes.

Other candidates for backup infield spots are Anderson Hernandez and Angel Sanchez, both strong offensive players who are having nice springs. Defensively, Manzella and Downs probably have the advantage.

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One position that I do not feel is up for grabs is first base. I still believe this is Brett Wallace’s job and that he’ll be there on Opening Day. Manager Brad Mills has been careful not to make any definitive declarations regarding first base, but he has lauded Wallace on many occasions for his approach and ability.

“He has confidence in his ability,” Mills said. “And, quite frankly, so do we.”

Mills did reveal that Carlos Lee will probably receive a small dose of playing time at first base once the Astros play their final split squad games (March 20). I would caution not to read too much into that. Lee has been taking ground balls at first base all spring but is preparing for the season as the left fielder.

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Notable:

*Jeff Keppinger is officially out of the walking boot he’s been wearing since he had offseason surgery on his foot.

* Michael Bourn was not in Thursday’s lineup for no other reason than Mills wanted to give him a rest. Bourn had the most spring at-bats of anyone heading into the game with the Nationals, and the short turnaround following the rare night game on Thursday was a perfect time to give Bourn a short break.

* The Astros will play a day game in Kissimmee with the Red Sox and a night game (5 p.m. CT start) at the Nationals on Friday, the fourth of six split-squad days the Astros have on their spring schedule.

* Justine Siegal is scheduled to throw a round of batting practice to Astros hitters prior to Saturday’s game with the Orioles. Siegal is the first woman to throw batting practice to a Major League club, having done so with the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays.

Siegal wears a patch on her sleeve in honor or Christina-Taylor Green, who was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting near Tucson. Green, the granddaughter of former Phillies manager Dallas Green, was the only girl on her Little League team and wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major Leagues.

* Three more games will be aired on MLB Network, in addition to the March 18 and 19 games that will be shown by FS Houston: March 15 at Baltimore, March 27 vs. Detroit, March 30 vs. Red Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

* The Astros now have three active players on Twitter: Hunter Pence (@HunterPence9), Ryan Rowland-Smith (@hyphen18) and our newest addition to the Twitterverse, Chris Johnson (cjastros23). All three tweet regularly and enjoy the give and take with the fans. On Thursday, through Twitter, we learned that Rowland-Smith forgot the Astros had a night game on Thursday and arrived to an empty clubhouse at 8 a.m. (thus ruining his one and only chance to sleep in this spring) and that Pence had seven eggs (five in an omelette), two muffins and potatoes for breakfast at Mimi’s Cafe. This equated to, quoting the right fielder, a “Happy Hunter.”
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On to the pictures from an overcast afternoon and somewhat soggy (but playable) field during Thursday’s pregame practice:

Clint Barmes

0310_barmes_cag.jpg

Barmes, Chris Johnson

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Bourn and his son, Bryson

0310_bourn_bryson.jpg

0310_bourn_2.jpg

Brad Mills, Carlos Lee

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