Astros skipper Dusty Baker announced several changes to his team’s pitching staff during his Wednesday media session, revealing that lefty Framber Valdez will return from the injured list to make his season debut Friday and Jake Odorizzi will be activated to start Saturday’s game (all Twitter links via Jake Kaplan of The Athletic). That’s the good news, but Baker also announced that righty Lance McCullers Jr. is headed to the 10-day IL due to shoulder soreness. The team does not believe the issue to be serious at this point.
The Astros have also selected the contract of right-hander Ralph Garza from Triple-A Sugar Land. Injured righty Josh James was moved from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL to open a roster spot. Lastly, Baker said right-hander Cristian Javier will be moved to the bullpen to accommodate the returns of Valdez and Odorizzi.
It’s a broad-ranging series of roster moves and role changes that carry significant implications for the Astros’ outlook moving forward. The 27-year-old Valdez broke out as one of the team’s best starters in 2020 and was expected to occupy a key role near the top of the rotation in ’21, but a broken ring finger sustained on a comebacker in Spring Training placed his very season in jeopardy. Valdez opted not to undergo surgery that could have cost him the bulk of the year, and he’ll now return to the mound after missing approximately two months of action.
Valdez stepped up in the wake of Justin Verlander’s injury last year, logging 70 2/3 frames with a 3.57 ERA and even better FIP (2.85) and SIERA (3.23) marks. He fanned a hearty 26.4 percent of his opponents against just a 5.6 percent walk rate — all while inducing grounders at a 60 percent clip that ranked among the game’s best. That combination of missed bats, precise control and grounders is a time-honored recipe for success, and he’ll now look to build on last year’s performance to cement himself as one of the club’s best rotation arms.
Odorizzi, 31, inked a three-year deal with the Astros over the winter (the third of which is a player option that’s unlikely to be exercised but was included as a means of manipulating the luxury tax). He made a pair of starts for the ’Stros earlier this season after a short ramp-up before being placed on the IL with a pronator muscle strain. Those first two outings didn’t go well, but Odorizzi will look to put that pair of outings and an injury-ruined 2020 season with the Twins behind him.
It appears the return of Odorizzi and Valdez will be utilized by the Astros as a means of managing the 24-year-old Javier’s workload. He’s been quite good thus far in 2021, pitching to a 3.14 ERA with a 29.9 percent strikeout rate and a 10.8 percent walk rate. However, the 48 2/3 innings he’s thrown are already just six shy of his entire 2020 total, and there are still more than four months of regular-season play remaining (plus, the Astros hope, additional October ball to be played). A move to the ’pen will allow the ’Stros to more carefully monitor his overall innings count this year.
The role change doesn’t necessarily rule out a return to the rotation later in the season, and based on Javier’s first 103 big league innings, it’d be a shock if the organization didn’t view him as a starter moving forward. He’s pitched to a combined 3.32 ERA with a 27.5 percent strikeout rate and 9.6 percent walk rate through 21 appearances (19 of them starts). With Verlander and Zack Greinke both slated to reach free agency this winter, there could be a fairly straightforward path to rotation work for Javier in 2022 and beyond.
Turning to the other IL moves announced today, the move of James to the 60-day IL is a procedural one that doesn’t really impact his timeline back to the Majors. He’s been out all year while recovering from hip surgery and was said during Spring Training to be targeting a June return. Today’s placement on the 60-day IL merely means that he can’t be activated until May 31, which wasn’t going to happen anyhow.
The departure of McCullers will be felt in the short-term, as he’s logged an excellent 2.96 ERA through his first 51 2/3 frames this year. The right-hander elected to forgo free agency in favor of a five-year, $85MM extension offer from the Astros during Spring Training, and at least to this point, the 27-year-old looks like a pitcher capable of living up to that deal.
Garza, 27, isn’t considered to be among the team’s top-ranked prospects but has tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings in Sugar Land, yielding just a hit and three walks with 11 punchouts along the way. He’s spent parts of four seasons in Triple-A, pitching to a combined 3.80 ERA with a 26.2 percent strikeout rate. He’ll join the club’s bullpen for now.