Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. had a setback in his rehab from a forearm strain, general manager Dana Brown told reporters this evening (relayed by Chandler Rome of the Athletic and Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle). He’ll head for an MRI tomorrow and the team is expected to provide an update next week.
It’s an ominous development for a pitcher who has had an unfortunate series of arm issues over the past few years. McCullers underwent Tommy John surgery in late 2018 and missed the entire subsequent season. He was healthy and effective for most of 2020 and ’21 but suffered a flexor strain in his forearm during the latter postseason. That kept him out until the following August, limiting him to 11 combined starts between the regular season and the club’s World Series run.
McCullers’ latest issue arose over the offseason. He was diagnosed with a muscle strain in his forearm and shut down for a few months. His ramp-up process hit a snag in late May when continued soreness led the club to scale him back from bullpen sessions to flat-ground work. According to Brown, even those throwing sessions were causing McCullers discomfort, necessitating further imaging.
It’s too soon to know whether McCullers will need to go back under the knife. He and the organization are surely hopeful they’ll be able to avoid surgery. Yet it’s clear that McCullers’ return won’t be imminent. Brown acknowledged this development could play into their approach to the trade deadline.
“Even if (McCullers) could come back, we would have to build him up and it’s going to take a little while to do that, so we have to get our mind set and keep the thought process of strengthening the rotation,” the GM told the media (relayed by Young). “If there’s a deal that we can do, we’ll entertain it. But at the end of the day, our top three guys, make no mistake, are really good.”
Each of Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez and Hunter Brown has a sub-4.00 ERA with a strikeout rate north of 26%. Valdez and Javier are both allowing fewer than three earned runs per nine innings and have multi-year track records of top-of-the-rotation production. The rookie Hunter Brown isn’t quite as proven, though he’s a former top prospect who has hit the ground running with a 3.05 ERA, 28.1% strikeout rate and 54.9% grounder percentage over his first 88 2/3 MLB innings.
The Astros could feel comfortable running any member of that trio out for a postseason start. The rest of the staff has taken a number of hits over the past few months. Luis Garcia was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. McCullers’ status is in question. José Urquidy is unlikely to be back before the All-Star Break due to a shoulder issue. Brandon Bielak and J.P France have stepped into the starting five and pitched fairly well themselves, though neither player misses many bats nor had much MLB starting experience before this season.
Houston enters play Thursday at 36-26. They’re in possession of a Wild Card spot but 4 1/2 back of the Rangers as they look to defend their AL West crown. Losing McCullers, Garcia and Urquidy certainly hasn’t helped their cause in trying to hold off a scorching Texas club, but the rotation has more than held up its end of the bargain. Astros’ starters rank third in the majors with a 3.23 ERA and fourth with 350 2/3 innings pitched.
The offense, on the other hand, has been uncharacteristically middling. Houston is tied for 13th in runs and ranks 20th in on-base percentage (.316) and 17th in slugging (.399). Dana Brown unsurprisingly acknowledged the front office was open to ways to addressing the offense on the trade market. Which positions the club targets could be determined by how things play out over the next seven weeks.
First base, catcher and whichever of left field or designated hitter hasn’t been manned by Yordan Alvarez have been their biggest problem areas. There’s at least some question about whether they’d upgrade at all three spots, though. The Astros love Martín Maldonado as a defensive presence behind the dish and have tolerated lackluster offense at the position for years. They just signed José Abreu to a three-year free agent deal last winter; benching him a few months into that contract would be a tough pill to swallow, though he’s now sitting on a ghastly .212/.273/.261 line. Michael Brantley could be an option for left field/DH at some point. He has yet to play this season as he recovers from last summer’s shoulder procedure, but Brown noted today that he’s hitting in batting practice and throwing in drills.