For obvious reasons, the Astros have made plenty of negative headlines in recent weeks. The start of the regular season continues to close in, though, so despite all the outside noise, the Astros will have to turn the page and focus on defending their American League pennant from a year ago.
When they do take the field the season, the Astros’ rotation figures to look quite a bit different than the all-world unit they relied on in 2019. Gone from that group are AL Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley, a duo that combined for almost 380 innings of excellent pitching. Now, the Astros still have a great front-of-the-rotation tandem in Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, and they’re slated to get Lance McCullers Jr. back after he missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Beyond, Verlander, Greinke and McCullers, the rest of the Astros’ rotation picture is less clear. However, pitching coach Brent Strom shed some light on it in a discussion with Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. Strom suggested that Jose Urquidy is in line for the No. 4 spot. He also revealed that the Astros don’t expect to count on righty Brad Peacock as a starter. The veteran swingman made 15 starts in 23 appearances last year, but the neck issues that slowed him in 2019 have continued. Houston now expects him to factor into its bullpen instead of its rotation.
Regarding Peacock and the Astros’ starting staff, Strom told McTaggart, “I think you can probably count [Brad] Peacock out of the race.” Strom added that Peacock’s “probably more valuable to us in the bullpen,” leaving (in his view) Austin Pruitt, Josh James and Framber Valdez to compete for the No. 5 position. Although towering righty Forrest Whitley has been one of the Astros’ top prospects for at least a couple years, he’s probably not “a viable candidate” to land a job in their season-opening rotation, according to Strom.
Among the actual competitors for the Astros’ No. 5 position, only Pruitt’s new to the team. He joined the Astros in a trade with the Rays last month. The 30-year-old’s known for his high spin rate, but it hasn’t translated to much major league success thus far. Since debuting in 2017, Pruitt has posted 199 2/3 innings of 4.87 ERA ball (with a far superior 4.17 FIP and a solid 48.9 percent groundball rate) and recorded 6.63 K/9 against 2.25 BB/9. He’s out of minor league options, so he’ll have to earn a place on Houston’s 26-man roster or potentially be lost on waivers.
James, a fellow righty, and the left-handed Valdez still have options remaining. The hard-throwing James made an encouraging – albeit brief – debut in 2018, though he had difficulty with control in a relief role last season. The 26-year-old ended up tossing 61 1/3 frames and notching a 4.70 ERA/3.98 FIP with 5.14 walks per nine. On a better note, he did log a tremendous 14.67 K/9 while averaging 97.2 mph on his fastball.
Valdez, also 26, joined James in amassing lots of innings but struggling to throw strikes last season. He walked 5.6 hitters per nine, helping lead to a 5.86 ERA/4.98 FIP in 70 2/3 innings between the Astros’ rotation and bullpen. Valdez’s strikeout rate (8.66 K/9) was a lot worse than James’, but he did induce grounders at an outstanding 62.1 percent clip.
Just-hired manager Dusty Baker will clearly have to make some key decisions in forming a new-look rotation before the season commences. Verlander, Greinke and McCullers are locks, but the Astros don’t have any proven commodities after that trio.