You can have an elite offense, but without a stout starting rotation, you’re not going to win the American or National League Pennant, let alone the World Series. This is the dilemma the Houston Astros find themselves in.
Last season the Astros had the best pitching staff in Major League Baseball. With Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole pitching at Cy Young Award-caliber levels, Charlie Morton having a career year (Morton finished 2018 with a career-best 3.13 ERA and 201 strikeouts), Lance McCullers coming into his own as one of the best young pitchers in the sport, and Dallas Keuchel having a respectable season, they formed a formidable starting rotation. But manager AJ Hinch‘s bullpen was also elite.
With the likes of Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, Tony Sipp, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith, and Roberto Osuna (who the Astros acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays before the MLB trade deadline) waiting in the pen, the Astros had the arms to pick up where their starters left things. Right now they don’t have that luxury and a rotation that’s nowhere near the force it once was.
Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason; McCullers is expected to miss 2019 with an elbow injury; Keuchel remains a free agent, and there’s been little talk of a reunion between he and the Astros; Sipp signed a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals in spring training.
Verlander and Cole are two of the best pitchers the sport has to offer. But after the potent right-handers, the Astros starting rotation is an enormous area of concern. Sure, they signed left-hander Wade Miley to a one-year, $4.5 million deal in the offseason and inserted McHugh and Peacock into their starting rotation. But the trio of now-starters have their fair share of red flags.After riding their menacing starting rotation to the ALCS last season, the @astros don't have the same strength on the hill in 2019. @RPStratakos has more.Click To Tweet
While he was a pleasant surprise for the Milwaukee Brewers down the stretch of last season, recording a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts and pitching well in the postseason, the southpaw has been one of the most unreliable starting pitchers in the sport in recent memory. From 2016-17 he recorded ERAs of 5.37 and 5.61, WHIPs of 1.42 and 1.73, and been one of the most hittable pitchers in MLB. With Houston he’s being asked to be a band-aid on their rotation’s lack of depth. Is Miley the right arm for the job?
McHugh has experience as a starter, and that was likely a reason why the Astros didn’t break the bank to fill the void in their rotation in the offseason. At the same time, McHugh didn’t start a single game last season and hasn’t started a full season since 2016. What guarantee is there that he’s going to return to his old ways and serve as a reliable starter every fifth day?
Peacock is in a similar position. He pitched well in the Astros’ Monday night matchup with the Texas Rangers, throwing 6.2 innings and surrendering just one run, but hasn’t been a fixture in their rotation since 2017 and never made more than 24 starts in a single season. It’s not to say that he can’t grow into a reliable starter over the next two seasons, but Peacock has become accustomed to pitching out of the bullpen. Now, most, if not all pitchers in the major leagues, have started at some level in their baseball careers, but going from pitching one inning to two-thirds of a game is a severe difference, whether it be from a workload, mental, or conditioning standpoint.
With an offense that has Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel, the Astros have the potential to be in any game they play, despite their pitching staff’s deficiencies. And, to this point, their pitching staff has held its own. While the Astros are 2-4, they’ve only surrendered 18 runs. Ironically, the issue has been the bats, but it won’t last, nor will their rotation’s early dominance.
For a contender like the Astros it would make sense to add a pitcher before the trade deadline, except there are two problems with them doing as such: 1) their farm system is their future considering the players they’ve lost to free agency and 2) they will have to extend an offer in excess of $20 million to re-sign Cole this offseason. Whatever trade the Astros make for a short-term upgrade takes away from a farm system that, in a way, is their future starting rotation with the likes of Forrest Whitley, Cionel Perez, and other highly regarded pitchers playing their way through the team’s minor-league system.
It’s easy to say that a team is on the verge of a dynasty in sports, but so much can change in a year. The Astros won the 2017 World Series and were throttled by the Boston Red Sox in last season’s ALCS; it was shocking to watch them lose three straight games on their home turf and four in a row to end the series. Then they lost McCullers to an injury, Morton to free agency, and Keuchel’s time with them is likely over. In one year they went from MLB’s next dynasty to arguably the third-best team in the AL.
The defending World Series-champion Red Sox have a troublesome bullpen, but a deep and high-octane lineup, as well as a potent starting rotation; while they’ve been plagued with injuries to begin the season, the New York Yankees, at full strength, are arguably the most well-rounded team in MLB; you could also argue that the Cleveland Indians would put up a better fight than they did last season against the Astros (the Indians were swept by the Astros in the ALDS last season) considering how they have the best starting rotation in baseball and the Astros have been downgraded; the Oakland Athletics came out of nowhere to win 97 games last season, although they have a thin starting rotation.
The AL West will be won by the Astros. The A’s and Los Angeles Angels have some intriguing players and aspects of their roster to boast over, but they’re not a pennant threat. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Seattle Mariners aren’t playoff threats.
The Astros are still an AL pennant threat with their up-tempo offense, reliable bullpen, and rotation duo of Verlander and Cole. But they’re not invincible and don’t pose the same threat they have in years past. If they don’t get major contributions from their starting rotation, Hinch and the crew will be watching the World Series, and potentially the ALCS, from their clubhouse.