The Astros finally caved and traded longtime ace Roy Oswalt as part of their rebuilding effort this year, but the move certainly didn't cripple the team's rotation. In fact, the starting five has been the team's greatest strength amidst a disappointing season that has Houston sitting in third place in the NL Central at 67-73. For all intents and purposes, the same group will be returning in 2011.
The last remaining link to the 2005 NL Championship team is 31-year-old southpaw Wandy Rodriguez. He followed up 2009's breakout performance with what can best be described as a tale of two seasons. His ERA stood at 6.09 with a 6.2 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 through his first 14 starts this year, but Wandy rebounded to post a 1.91 ERA, 8.8 K/9, and 1.8 BB/9 in 14 starts since. The Astros control Rodriguez as an arbitration-eligible player for the third and final time next season, when his salary figures to jump from $5MM into the $8MM range.
Joining Wandy at the top of the rotation is former Phillie Brett Myers, arguably the single best free agent signing from last offseason. After signing for just one year and $5.1MM guaranteed, all he's done is post a 2.91 ERA, 7.1 K/9, and 2.5 BB/9 in 29 starts this season, going no fewer than six innings each time out. The Astros rewarded Myers' effort with a contract extension that guarantees the 30-year-old at least $21MM through 2012.
Lefthander J.A. Happ, acquired in the Oswalt deal, figures to hold down a spot in the middle of the rotation next season. He's made eight strong starts since coming over (3.21 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 4.2 BB/9), and won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2011 season.
Rookie righthander Bud Norris has been impressive even if his 5.16 ERA doesn't back it up. He's struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings, sixth-most among NL starters, and his walk rate is a tolerable 4.0 BB/9. The 25-year-old Norris figures to remain in the rotation next season after cutting his teeth this year.
Brian Moehler, Felipe Paulino, Wesley Wright, Josh Banks, and most recently Nelson Figueroa have rounded out the back of the rotation at different times this year. Paulino, 26, is the most promising of the bunch (4.40 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 4.5 BB/9), but he's missed the second half with a shoulder strain. At 95.5 mph, only Ubaldo Jimenez has a higher average fastball velocity than Paulino among starters (AL and NL) this year. Moehler is due to become a free agent after the season and Figueroa is a perpetual non-tender candidate, especially since he'll be up for arbitration for the first time this winter.
Down on the farm sits one of the game's best pitching prospects in Jordan Lyles, who dominated the Double-A level (3.12 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) at just 19 years of age this season. Houston gave him a late-season cameo with Triple-A Round Rock, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that he'll make his big league debut at some point during the 2011 season.
Oswalt won't be around to be that veteran, shut-down ace next season, but the Astros have plenty of arms to work with. Rodriguez and Myers are a more than capable one-two punch (not necessarily in that order, of course), while Happ and Norris give the team plenty of cost-effective production with a chance to improve as they continue their development. If Lyles steps up and establishes himself at some point next summer, Houston's starting five will be one of the deepest, and perhaps most underappreciated, in all of baseball.