Houston’s the only team in the majors that has used the same five starting pitchers all season, but that may be on the verge of changing. Right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. left his start against the Dodgers on Saturday in the fifth inning with discomfort in his pitching elbow, the team announced. McCullers will head back to Houston on Sunday for a medical examination, Brian McTaggart of MLB.com was among those to report.
McCullers cruised during his abbreviated outing Saturday in what proved to be a rout for the reigning champion Astros, who rolled to a 14-0 victory over their World Series opponent from 2017. The 24-year-old tossed four innings of scoreless, two-hit ball, also notching five strikeouts against two walks. But McCullers was unable to throw a single pitch in the fifth, and he told reporters after the game that there was “some abnormal soreness and stiffness” around his forearm.
Forearm issues often serve as a precursor to Tommy John surgery, a procedure McCullers hasn’t undergone to this point. The fourth-year man hasn’t been the picture of durability in the majors, though, having dealt with elbow and shoulder troubles in 2016 before going on the disabled list twice on account of back problems last year. He has only gone past the 125-inning mark twice in a season, including his career-best 126 frames in 2018.
Despite his injuries, McCullers has always posted strong production, which has continued this year with a 3.93 ERA/3.57 FIP, 9.86 K/9 and 3.57 BB/9 and a 54.8 percent groundball rate. That type of output won’t be easy for the Astros to replace if McCullers does land on the shelf, though the team’s rotation would still be a loaded group without him, evidenced by the unit’s league-leading ERA (3.00) and fWAR (16.2). Statistically, McCullers has been the worst of the Astros’ starters this year, but that’s less a knock on him than a compliment to the work Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel have done.
Now, if Houston does lose McCullers, it’s unclear how the team would fill out its rotation. Fellow Astros righties Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock each bring plenty of starting experience, but they’ve been entrenched in bullpen roles all season and, with a few exceptions, have typically worked a maximum of two innings per appearance. Other 40-man options include Triple-A starters Brady Rodgers and Francis Martes, though neither looks ready for the big leagues right now. Rodgers has struggled in his first action since undergoing TJ surgery last year, and Martes is on the mend from elbow issues of his own.
At the Double-A level and not on the 40-man roster, the Astros have one of the premier pitching prospects in baseball in towering righty Forrest Whitley. However, he’s also working back from an injury (a strained oblique) and has only amassed 35 2/3 innings above the Single-A level since 2017. Astros manager A.J. Hinch did suggest last week that Whitley could garner consideration for a September promotion, though (via Christian Boutwell and Alyson Footer of MLB.com). In the meantime, Houston’s hope is that McCullers won’t miss any time – let alone a substantial amount – as it continues trying to maintain or build on its five-game lead over the Athletics in the AL West.