Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. is set to begin a minor league rehab assignment on Friday, reports Mark Berman of Fox 26 (Twitter link). He’s scheduled to throw two innings for Double-A Corpus Christi.
Pitchers can spend up to 30 days on rehab assignments, so the start of his work suggests an early-mid August timetable for his return to the big leagues if all goes as expected. McCullers has yet to pitch this year as he’s rehabbed from the flexor tendon forearm strain that cut short his 2021 postseason. While the club initially expressed hope he’d be ready for Opening Day, McCullers’ offseason rehab didn’t progress as quickly as expected. He returned to mound work by late May and has spent the past six weeks gradually building back towards game readiness.
Getting McCullers back in mid-August should afford him time to round into shape for the postseason. The Astros lead the Mariners by nine games in the AL West, and they’re even further clear of the Twins for the league’s #2 seed (and associated first-round bye). They’re a virtual playoff lock, and a healthy McCullers will only add to the team’s embarrassment of riches on the mound. The right-hander was arguably the team’s best pitcher last year, tossing 162 1/3 innings of 3.16 ERA ball while punching out 27% of opponents.
Most teams would struggle to overcome the loss of an arm of that caliber, but the Astros have sported one of baseball’s top rotations. Houston’s starting staff trails only the Yankees in ERA (3.15) and the Padres in innings pitched (522 2/3). They’re seventh in strikeout rate (23.9%) and 11th in walk percentage (7%). Aside from McCullers, Houston’s rotation has stayed mostly healthy. Jake Odorizzi missed around six weeks with a heel injury, but each of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy has avoided the injured list. That sextet has combined to make all of the team’s starts, and Urquidy is the only member of the group with an ERA north of 3.76.
If everyone remains healthy, the Astros could consider kicking any of Odorizzi, Javier or Urquidy into relief. Houston’s bullpen has been similarly excellent, leading baseball with a 2.66 ERA. Their strong division lead should allow manager Dusty Baker to keep an eye on the innings totals for McCullers and Verlander (who missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery) to ensure they hit the postseason at peak form.