The Astros are moving right-hander Cristian Javier from the bullpen back into what will now be a six-man rotation, manager Dusty Baker told reporters yesterday (link via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Houston is facing a daunting stretch of 33 games in the next 34 days, and Baker revealed that the team has been expecting to move to a six-man rotation since Spring Training, recognizing this marathon stretch on the schedule.
Javier joins Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and Jake Odorizzi in what Baker termed a “temporary” six-man rotation. Of course, the fact that the team isn’t planning to trot out a six-man unit for the duration of the season doesn’t mean that Javier is ticketed for bullpen work once this imposing stretch of games draws to a close. Injuries can always alter the picture, and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. will be eligible to return not long after this 34-day gauntlet. The Astros will also surely need to see better results from Odorizzi (nine runs, five strikeouts, seven walks in nine innings) and Urquidy (5.52 ERA, 11.3% strikeout rate in 14 2/3 innings) for either to hold their starting job in the long term.
Odorizzi, in particular, has drawn the ire of fans early in the season. The righty has gotten out to a slow start for a second straight year, but it’s worth pointing out that in his final 96 2/3 innings after returning from the injured list last season, he pitched to a 3.72 ERA with a 19.8% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate — solid marks that generally fall in line with his career numbers. Odorizzi is playing the 2022 season on a $5MM base salary and is also owed at least a $3.25MM buyout on next year’s $6.5MM player option. He can earn up to $6.75MM via incentives this year, with a $500K bonus for reaching 100 innings and then a $1MM incentive for every 10 innings thereafter, up through 150. He’d receive a $1.25MM bonus for hitting 160 innings.
Turning back to Javier, there’s an easy argument that, based on the talented 25-year-old’s prior success as a starter, a permanent move to the rotation is the right call. While his velocity and strikeout rate are higher when working out of the ’pen, as one would expect, Javier nevertheless carries a 3.42 ERA and a hearty 26.7% strikeout rate in 19 career appearances as a starter. His 9.8% walk rate when starting games is a good bit lower than the 12.1% mark he’s posted out of the ’pen, and while it’s still a small sample, Javier hasn’t shown the drastic splits that many pitchers have when facing a lineup for a third time. Opponents have batted .151/.270/.377 against Javier when facing him for the third time in a day.
Looking beyond the current season and what Javier’s move to the rotation could mean for the 2022 Astros, there’d be notable ramifications as soon as 2023. Javier is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and he’d be poised for a much larger jump in salary with a successful season’s worth of starts than he would with a season worth of multi-inning relief work. Javier was placed into a long relief role in order to keep him stretched as a starter, Baker noted, but that’s meant only three appearances thus far. Dominant as they’ve been — Javier has yet to allow a run and has fanned 12 of his 31 opponents (38.7%) — Javier hasn’t been put in position to earn a save or a hold, either of which could help his case in arbitration. Working as a starter seems likely to be the best use of his talents for the Astros, but it’s also best for him and his long-term earning capacity in arbitration.
Javier’s first start of the season will be a road outing against the Rangers on Wednesday this week. He’s thrown 28, 53 and 55 pitches in his first three appearances this season, so it’s unlikely he’ll be tasked with tossing 100 pitches and pitching deep into the game. Five to six innings is probably the longest he’ll be allowed to pitch, depending on his efficiency, but the fact that he eclipsed 50 pitches both on April 13 and April 20 indicates that he won’t need to go through a particularly lengthy build-up process.