WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Houston Astros knew when they were moving on from veteran pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton that they would need the younger guys to step up. When Lance McCullers Jr. was ruled out for the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, that notion only became amplified.
The club signed left-handed pitcher Wade Miley from the Milwaukee Brewers, a southpaw who re-invented himself in 2018 due to the use of his cutter, although the fifth spot remains vacant.
There were numerous internal options at the start of spring training, yet it seems that number is getting lower. AJ Hinch has said that prospects Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas, and Corbin Martin will not be in consideration for the fifth spot, while Framber Valdez, Rogelio Armenteros, and Brad Peacock appear to be the frontrunners. Prior to his injury, the most intriguing candidate was Josh James, who burst on the scene when he was called up last September.
James, a 34th-round draft pick, caught everyone’s attention last season posting a 2.35 ERA in three starts. A strained quad has affected James’ spring, but there’s still a possibility he’ll be available for Opening Day, and most likely in a bullpen role.
“Whether I’m available on Opening Day and in whatever role is out of my control, but I just want to help this team win and do what is asked from me,” James said.Entering a promising 2019 season in Houston, emerging @astros pitcher @josh_james63 hopes to have the same impact he had late in 2018.Click To Tweet
In fact, this is James’ first big league camp, and he enters this spring much different than the last showing that he belongs at the big league level.
“Having success and production is something that I can build off of which has definitely helped me,” James said. “To be thrown into the wolves in September and the postseason when games are crucial has increased my confidence, which is important for a young pitcher.”
For any organization, drafting is only half the battle, and the Astros who have shown they can maximize a pitcher’s talents will have to do it yet again. The club has four pitchers in the top 100 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. James was not a highly sought-after talent, but he believed in his abilities, and with the help of the Astros coaching staff and player development, the future is bright.
“I think we have the best player development staff in baseball,” James said. “The coaching staff always make sure we are prepared, and by giving us lots of information to apply to the game plan, it’s a big help.”
The Astros organization are one of the most progressive minded clubs when it comes to analytics, and while it can sometimes be deemed overwhelming, James has embraced the numbers.
Early in James’ professional career, his velocity was in the early to mid 90s, until he solved what he claimed to be sleep apnea, which has led to an increase in velocity. Now, James can consistently hit triple digits in high leverage situations. Regarding prospects, often times we want the immediate impact or the younger guys in their early 20s who don’t have as much wear and tear on their arm. James’ path has not been the typical path to the big leagues which makes it that much more impressive.
With that said, James focuses on the present, and wants to perform because he is focused on the ultimate goal of winning a World Series.
“The draft was awhile ago, so the chip on my shoulder is not as prevalent as maybe it once was,” James said. “I still take things day by day trying to be better than the last so I’m in a position to help this team win.”
The Astros recently won the World Series, but James was not a part of it. In 2017, James was in Double-A pitching to a 4.38 ERA, still grinding it out. Fast forward, and James is a pitcher who Houston can count on along with the other young guys.
“It definitely gives us young guys confidence having the support of of teammates and coaches,” James said. “They know what it takes having won before, so when our name is called, they trust us in any situation to get the job done.”
Perhaps guys like Keuchel and Morton were not brought back because of future payroll concerns with their other players extensions and arbitration raises, but this is a team that won a franchise record 103 games last year, so if they thought their internal options weren’t the answer they’d make a move. Also, the Astros have uncertainty in their rotation with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole being free agents at the end of 2019. What happens in the future remains to be seen, but whatever the Astros hope to accomplish in the short-term and the long-term, expect Josh James to be at the center of it.