Astros camp kicked off last week with the revelation that right-handers Justin Verlander and J.P. France were both slightly behind schedule due to shoulder troubles. Both, however, have been progressing nicely over the past week-plus. Verlander tossed a bullpen session today, after which manager Joe Espada told reporters he’s “encouraged” with his ace’s progression from that shoulder issue (X link via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com). France, meanwhile, pitched off a mound Wednesday — his first time doing so after being limited to flat ground work at the beginning of camp (X link via Matt Kawahara of the Houston Chronicle).
It’s a positive step for both pitchers, though the team still hasn’t declared with any certainty that both players will be ready for Opening Day. If he’s healthy, Verlander would be the presumptive favorite to start Opening Day. France, meanwhile, figures to compete for a spot at the back of the rotation after impressing as a 28-year-old rookie in 2023. Houston manager Joe Espada has raised the possibility of a six-man rotation this year, which would allow France to continue starting alongside Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown and Jose Urquidy. That’s not set in stone at this point and will of course be dependent on how both righties continue to progress.
On the topic of Valdez, Chandler Rome of the Athletic wrote earlier this week that the left-hander says he has not yet received any sort of extension offer from the team this winter. Houston general manager Dana Brown listed Valdez as an extension target last offseason not long after being hired, and while the team and Valdez discussed parameters last spring, there was a sufficient enough gap that no deal was reached.
Valdez, 30, is controllable through the 2025 season. He and the Astros agreed to a $12.1MM salary for the upcoming season, avoiding an arbitration hearing in doing so. He’s finished ninth or better on each of the past two Cy Young ballots and touts a 3.13 ERA, a 23.5% strikeout rate, an 8.3% walk rate and a massive 63% ground-ball rate in 534 regular season innings, dating back to 2021. Valdez’s name briefly surfaced in trade rumors earlier in the winter, but a deal never seemed especially likely and now feels even less plausible with Verlander and France behind schedule. If anything, Brown has spoken frequently about his desire to constantly be adding to his pitching depth.
Elsewhere on the pitching staff, the Astros are set for an unusual amount of competition in the bullpen this spring, Kawahara writes in a full column. Josh Hader, Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu are locked into late-inning roles, and Rafael Montero’s three-year, $34.5MM contract (covering the 2023-25 seasons) assures him a spot as well. But the Astros lost Phil Maton and Hector Neris to free agency already, and they don’t seem especially likely to re-sign Ryne Stanek, either. They’ll also be without Kendall Graveman, who’ll miss the season due to shoulder surgery.
Among the options to step into prominent bullpen roles are righties Brandon Bielak, Ronel Blanco, Dylan Coleman, Shawn Dubin, Seth Martinez, Forrest Whitley and Oliver Ortega. All are on the 40-man roster, as are southpaws Parker Mushinski and Bennett Sousa. Righty Wander Suero is the most experienced non-roster invitee in camp.
Brown, the team’s general manager, tells Kawahara that the team will “take a close look” at Coleman in particular. Both Espada and pitching coach Josh Miller praised Coleman’s raw stuff and cited a belief that the Astros can get him back to his 2022 form, when he posted a 2.78 ERA, fanned nearly a quarter of his opponents and sat just shy of 98 mph with his heater. The 2023 season was a disaster for Coleman, however, as he posted an 8.84 ERA and walked 19 batters in 18 1/3 innings with Kansas City.
Sousa, too, will get strong consideration. Brown noted to Kawahara that if he’d been acquired prior to the Sept. 1 postseason eligibility deadline last year, he’d likely have been on Houston’s playoff rosters. Espada indicated that he doesn’t feel compelled to have a second lefty in the ’pen beyond Hader and is focused primarily on just carrying the best group the team has, regardless of handedness. Still, Sousa posted interesting strikeout, walk and swinging-strike rates in a small sample last season (29.4%, 5.9% and 12.9%, respectively) and has fanned nearly a third of his career opponents in parts of three Triple-A seasons.