The 2018 Houston Astros’ pitching staff wasn’t quite the best in modern baseball, but it was pretty darn close. The staff recorded more strikeouts than any team in history (10.4 K per nine innings, for a total of 1687). Their 130 ERA+—30% better than the average pitching staff, adjusted for scoring environment and opponents—was the eighth-best since the game integrated in 1947. They became the first team since the 1919 Cincinnati Reds to record a sub-1.1 WHIP. And even in an age of historically heavy bullpen use, the bulk of this success came from their rotation. The Astros’ starters pitched more than those of any team in baseball other than the Cleveland Indians—5.9 innings per game, on average, compared to a league average of 5.4. Houston’s rotation resulted in one nominee for the AL Cy Young Award in Justin Verlander, and it could have very easily had another one in Gerrit Cole.
Outside of Verlander and Cole, though, the rotation’s future is unclear. At the end of the season, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton became free agents, and earlier this week, the team announced that Lance McCullers, Jr. has undergone Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2019. As a result, Houston’s winter plans are looking a little more complicated than they were previously.
McCullers worked as the team’s fifth starter for most of this season, but he didn’t bear much resemblance to the idea of a typical No. 5. (Hey, someone has to hold down the last spot for one of modern baseball’s strongest crews.) In 2018, he continued to serve as the poster-child for the curveball’s current dominance—46.5% of his pitches, a higher proportion than any other starting pitcher—and his strikeout rate was among the top ten in the American League. The 25-year-old’s health was a concern, as it’s been for most of his career; he missed almost all of August and September with a strained forearm muscle, and though he returned to work out of the bullpen in the postseason, he told reporters afterwards that he’d been “pitching through some stuff.” His 128 ⅓ innings pitched this season were still a career high, after his struggles with elbow and shoulder injuries in years past. His Tommy John surgery perhaps isn’t necessarily a surprise, but it’s undoubtedly a serious blow for the 2019 Astros.
“I think our goal is going to be looking at all the different alternatives—including trade, free agency and our own guys—as a way to fill the rotation,” Houston GM Jeff Luhnow told reporters. So what, exactly, might that look like?
If Keuchel and Morton both depart in free agency—Keuchel was tagged with a qualifying offer; Morton was not—here’s what the depth chart might look like:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Gerrit Cole
3. Collin McHugh
4. Josh James
5. Brad Peacock or Framber Valdez
Verlander and Cole makes for a remarkably strong one-two punch, which should alleviate most concerns over the back half of the rotation. Still: Those concerns are present, and valid. McHugh-James-Peacock isn’t quite the Morton-Keuchel-McCullers, trio of 2017. Both McHugh and Peacock are former starters who made the full-time switch to the bullpen in 2018; McHugh’s potential return to the rotation was being discussed even before McCullers’ injury, and he seems like a smart bet to convert, with a stronger history as a starter than Peacock’s.
James dazzled in a brief showing as a rookie last season, with a nasty changeup and a fastball that can touch triple digits. (It touched 102 mph in relief in the playoffs, though it usually sits at 97-98 mph.) James made three starts this year, allowing four runs in 15 IP for a 2.35 ERA, with six walks and 19 strikeouts. Finally, if there’s no conversion back to the rotation for Peacock, the last spot will likely be filled by another one of last year’s rookies, Valdez. In five starts, Valdez allowed seven runs in 24 IP for a 2.59 ERA, with 18 walks and 20 strikeouts. Forrest Whitley, arguably the top pitching prospects in baseball might appear later in the 2019 season as an additional option. The 21-year-old spent last season in Double-A, though he missed time both for an oblique injury and a suspension for violating drug policy.
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It’s a fair pathway, but it’s not an especially solid one for a team that’s expecting to be a strong contender right out of the gate. Moving McHugh and Peacock would leave holes to fill in the bullpen, which is a problem of its own. James is certainly thrilling; Valdez, too, had some remarkably strong work in his debut year, but neither was viewed as a top organizational prospect entering last season, and relying on either one for a rotation spot to start the year might not be the most secure move. In other words: Filling the rotation internally could be good, but it probably won’t be quite good enough.
It's more likely that Houston will look to acquire at least one pitcher this winter either in free agency or by trade. And given that both Verlander and Cole will become free agents after next season, it might make sense for them to invest in a top-tier starter for the long haul.
The most obvious candidate for that would be Patrick Corbin, who represents the top starting pitcher on the market. The 29-year-old lefty is coming off a career-best season, with a 137 ERA+ and 30% strikeout rate. There’s World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi, who blossomed after his midseason trade to Boston. Or Japan’s Yusei Kikuchi, who’s likely to be the next high-profile player to jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB. The 27-year-old has a 73–46 record with a 2.77 ERA after eight seasons in Japan.
If Houston doesn’t want to spring for a splashier multi-year deal, there’s a slew of options who would be best suited for a less lucrative commitment. Think Hyun-jin Ryu, J.A. Happ, or Lance Lynn. The Astros’ development and deployment of Morton might be a hint here, too: They picked him up at a relatively low cost and made him into a different pitcher, with a better developed curveball and less reliance on his sinker.
In any event, the timing of McCullers’ surgery is something of a blessing: The Astros have time to figure it out.