It’s a brutal blow for an Astros rotation that was already faced with the possibility of losing both Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency. The loss of McCullers for the upcoming season now gives the Astros a third rotation piece to potentially replace. Houston does have some internal options who’d likely be starting for other organizations; righties Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock have both proven to be viable multi-inning relievers and could potentially slot into the starting five next year depending on the moves that president of baseball operation Jeff Luhnow and the rest of the Houston front office put together.
Luhnow, in fact, spoke today about the possibility of McHugh returning to a starting role next season (Twitter link via Rome). “I’d say we have three spots fairly well locked up, if we choose to go down the path of putting (Collin) McHugh back in the rotation,” he said. “With Lance not being there, it probably increases the odds of that happening.”
That’s not quite a proclamation that McHugh will start in 2019, but it does suggest that the ’Stros are comfortable with that outcome should it be necessary. Houston also has top prospect Forrest Whitley not far from the big leagues, and it’s possible that he could emerge as a rotation piece at some point in 2019.
But Houston’s long-term rotation outlook is now murkier than ever. Beyond the loss of McCullers and the fact that Keuchel and Morton are already free agents, each of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and McHugh will be free agents at the end of the 2019 season. Viewed through that lens, it’s all the more critical for the Astros to add some arms that are controlled for multiple seasons this winter, be they top free agents (e.g., Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Nathan Eovaldi) or trade acquisitions (e.g., James Paxton, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Fulmer).
The Astros will still owe McCullers a raise on 2018’s $2.45MM salary — a raise they’ll gladly pay despite the fact that McCullers won’t pitch next season. That raise will be based on his 2018 results — 3.86 ERA, 10.0 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 10-6 record through 128 1/3 innings — and he’ll likely earn that amount in both 2019 and 2020. Houston controls McCullers through the 2021 season, so while agreeing to pay a player who is known to be out for the season isn’t an ideal situation, the fact that tendering him a contract also entitles the Astros to his 2020-21 seasons makes it a lock that he’ll be retained.