Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. is set to start the 2022 season on the IL, he told reporters (including MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart). The right-handed pitcher continues to rehab the flexor tendon in his pitching arm that was injured during last year’s playoffs. Surgery does not appear to be in the cards at this time, and McCullers stressed he’s not dealing with a UCL issue (via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle).
While it’s still uncertain when McCullers will be able to return atop Houston’s rotation— currently he’s not even cleared to throw— Astros brass and fans should be encouraged by the news that their pitcher has not been recommended to head down the surgical route. The 28-year-old was already known to be behind in his recovery, with MLB’s lockout disrupting that recovery process, but there was still some ambiguity about the status of the player’s health.
Fortunately, several doctors have confirmed that the 2018 Tommy John recipient has not re-injured his UCL and instead have advised non-surgical PRP injections and stem cell therapy to treat the ailing tendon. This course of action is certainly preferable to a season-derailing surgery, though it still serves as an inauspicious beginning to the $85MM extension agreed upon by player and team early last year. Even with continued rehab progress and no further setbacks, McTaggart writes that McCullers figures to be out of commission “well into April,” owing to a need to build up the starter’s pitch count.
Houston will be hard-pressed to fill the shoes of their #2 pitcher behind veteran ace Justin Verlander, as the righty posted a stout 3.16 ERA and 27.1 K% across 162 plus innings last year. Difficult as that production may be to replace however, the Astros have a stable of arms who showed ample promise in the big leagues last year. Assuming good health, each of José Urquidy, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier and veteran Jake Odorizzi should do an adequate job holding down the fort until the homegrown McCullers is ready to take the hill again.
Should Houston’s top decision-makers go the way of other teams in recent days and add to their rotation depth, they will likely have the means to do so. Thanks to the new CBA, the Astros have more than $33MM to spend before hitting the first luxury tax threshold in the eyes of RosterResource, and none of the remaining pitchers on the free agent market figure to be too cost prohibitive. It remains to be seen if a deal with more Major League pitching is even on Houston’s radar, particularly if rumblings of a Carlos Correa reunion add another large salary to the books, but the Astros appear capable of weathering McCullers’ absence regardless of how the next few weeks unfold.