Looking ahead to Astros 2015: The rotation

As pitchers stream into Kissimmee, it’s time to review the options for the rotation. Obviously, much has already been discussed, but here’s the time and place for you to register your official commentary, opinions and thoughts. What was perhaps the strongest part of the major league team in 2014 may be the one with the most question marks for 2015. Let’s review just a bit.

So, here’s a quick rundown of what is likely for the 2015 season. Ha, you actually thought I was going to make a prediction? Guess again friends. After the past two months, I’m giving up the chips. But here’s what looks to be fairly evident in the tea leaves.

Locks to start the season. Or so we’re told…

  • Feldman. He’s a steady, veteran hand when healthy. He starts the second season of a three-year contract. He’ll earn $10 million this year and $8 million next. That makes him both a great bargain for Houston and good trade bait if some of Houston’s youngsters step up.
  • Keuchel. Just turned 27 and may be a budding young star. Along with Jose Altuve and perhaps McHugh, he’s as close to untouchable as anyone on the roster. Due for arbitration after the season, GM Jeff Luhnow would be wise to tie him up for a few seasons, especially if he starts strong.
  • McHugh. The prize student and catch on the waiver wire before last season. There was nothing in his track record to indicate he’d be nearly as good as he was in ’14, so he does have a bit to prove that he can repeat his numbers from a year ago. He’s arb-eligible after next season.
  • Oberholtzer. While the first three seem to be locks, Luhnow hasn’t been quite as bold with that label for Obie. Is it because he’s been trade fodder in the off-season? Or is it simply that he doesn’t have the same pedigree? The lefty is only 25 and improved his walk rate, WHIP and other factors as well over the second half of the season. No real pressure here since he’ll be helping to pull up the back of the rotation, but he’ll still need to hold his own and take another step forward in 2015.

Now, the heavy lifting begins. Easy to say, but if the Astros are as successful with the fifth spot in the rotation as they were last year, new manager A.J. Hinch will be on easy street with his rotation. Here are the contenders, some of which may turn out to be pretenders.

  • Peacock. If he were healthy, he’d already be penciled in. However, it could be May or June before he’s available. By then, any number of pitchers could have staked their Wally Pipp claim. Not likely, but Keuchel took the spot and didn’t look back last year.
  • Dan Straily. Time will tell whether he was just an added piece or the piece in the Dexter Fowler trade. The 26-year-old former 24th rounder starts the season in his third organization, but it’s key to note that all three are stats-driven (Oakland, Cubs, Astros), so perhaps the numbers’ guys see smoke and hope there’s fire. Stay tuned.
  • Roberto Hernandez. Luhnow is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and obviously has some level of confidence. That said, both sides are hedging their bets since Hernandez is a NRI with a potential $2.65 million payday, but he has an opt out for five days before spring training ends. Basically, it’s an all or nothing deal for both sides.
  • Alex White. It’s his time. Or you can read it: Now or never. He was the 15th overall pick in the 2009 draft and definitely has the makeup and pedigree to pull it off. If he sticks, he could be as good as Keuchel or McHugh. If he doesn’t pan out after all these years or succumbs to his prone injury bug, he may not even hang in Fresno. All that said, he could be the best sleeper in the bunch to turn into the next Keuchel.
  • Sam Deduno. Does anyone really believe he’ll be the fifth starter out of the gate? Bullpen, maybe. Swing man, possibly. Fifth starter in the rotation, doubtful.
  • Asher Wojciechowski. Another former first round pick (41st overall in 2009), Wojo is very similar to White. His time is now. Injuries and setbacks have plagued him, but at 26, he’ll need to step up in ST after only 76 IP last season at OKC.
  • Mark Appel. There’s no reason to rush, but he’ll be in spring training and you can bet all eyes will be on him. He proved his worth in a late season promotion to Corpus Christi and the former #1 pick is unlikely to start the season in Houston. That said, Appel says you shouldn’t count him out for 2015. He’d like to finish the season in MMP.

There is still time for a trade or other acquisition to battle, but it’s not likely. Of course, a trade for Cole Hamels would shake things up dramatically. But there aren’t other likely players for the rotation.

Another thought to consider. The bullpen seems more stable starting 2015 with fewer question marks than 2014. How does that affect the rotation and those who don’t make the 5-man cut? It basically means that Fresno will have a fantastic rotation since there are fewer holes to fill in the pen.

The rotation and its depth may no longer be the most sturdy position on paper, but it still has a chance to shine in 2015. Here are the factors:

  • Keuchel and McHugh must be stable and establish themselves as solid pitchers. In other words, show early they weren’t flashes in the pan. That will relieve much pressure for Hinch and allow him to focus elsewhere.
  • Feldman needs 30 starts. If he gets that, he’ll deliver the consistency the Astros need.
  • Oberholtzer must step up or perhaps get booted out or down to Fresno.
    • There is adequate depth to push him and make him better.
  • Hinch establishes the relationship early with pitching coach Brent Strom and the pitchers. How they are used, pulled, etc. will determine a lot about their success.
  • Pitchers like Appel, Lance McCullers Jr., Michael Feliz and others must continue to push their way to Houston. Not necessarily reach MMP in 2015, but solidify the pipeline.

So here are your questions:

  • The basic one: Who wins the fifth starter role?
  • Barring injury, who would you project in the rotation at mid-season? At season’s end?
  • Does/should Appel make it to Houston in ’15?
  • Your thoughts on Obie?
  • Which of these guys — or do any of these guys — has a chance to become the next Keuchel or McHugh in 2015: Wojo, Straily, White?



28 comments on “Looking ahead to Astros 2015: The rotation

  1. The Astros were apparently ready to spend money on the rotation, at least according to Liriano’s agent. I don’t think they are sold on any of their 5th starter options and Liriano would have penciled in Obie for that role. Honestly glad they didnt sign him, very chancy 36 mil spent.

    I’m fine with the 4th spot having a favorite, and the 5th spot being open competition in ST. Not a fan of Peacock, he has a good FB with movement but his command is way behind on every pitch. If he can work on getting the hitter to hit the pitchers pitch just out of the zone and not having to give in to hitters by falling behind as much I would be much happier with the option. At the very least on his return he will help the depth as I would suspect this to be a 10-11 pitcher year in how many starters they use by the end.

    GHF guy loves the top 3. GHE guy is concerned that Keuchel and McHugh have to repeat and Feldman has a career of durability issues. Pitching is so much harder than hitters to project.


    • Are you have expecting injuries or ineffectiveness to cause us to use an extra 5-6 starters?

      I’m interested in seeing Alex White this spring. Recall that he lost the bid for spot #5 in 2013, but had started the spring very strong before getting injured. I wonder if he or Wojo have a realistic chance, or if a guy like Straily has to fall flat on his face to not make the top 25. Our bullpen looks kind of full right now…


    • Steven, why 10-11 starters? Houston used only 11 last year and part of that was down the stretch wanting to get a look at a couple of guys. In 2013, the Astros used only 10. Each of those two years was much more tumultuous than I expect this year to be…at least going in.


    • The bottom of the rotation is unsettled. Four and Five have to win their jobs, and keep their jobs.

      Keuchel hit 200 innings for the first time as a professional. McHugh had one of his biggest usage outputs. Feldman is a walking wait when it comes to injury.

      I also expect that the Astros will want to look at Appel, White, Peacock, for sure outside the first 5 that win jobs out of ST, maybe along with a few others.

      I don’t expect a merry go round, but I do expect injuries, even minor ones, to impact.


  2. Keuchel is becoming a good pitcher because of several things. He is great at holding runners. He is great at fielding. He is the second best pitcher in baseball at getting ground balls. First of all, those are things that pitchers don’t regress at. Next, Keuchel, at age 27, has pitched almost 100 less MLB innings than has Jordan Lyles, who is 24. Keuchel is a low mileage gem. This guy is just learning how to pitch and he’s already rising to the top of the heap. We have a really good pitcher here.
    McHugh has such a good curve because of the pitch itself. Scouts say it may be the best curve ball in the AL. That pitch keeps McHugh from being a fluke. But he also has a good hard fastball and it comes out of the exact same spot in his delivery that his curve does. But McHugh is not to his prime pitching age yet and he is still learning how to pitch and he needs to learn how to hold runners at first and I think a catcher, like Hinch, can find a way to help him with that. McHugh is going to get better, because he has good mechanics and has four ML pitches. He also has Strom, who has already figured out the blister problem McHugh had last season.
    I’m like Becky when it comes to Ober. I think he refuses to stay the same, he is never satisfied with himself in a “head up” proud sort of way. You may just move him out of the rotation with pitchers with better stuff, but you are going to be in a war while you do it.
    Feldman likes where he is, and though he is the veteran of the staff, I think he is relieved to have the other three guys in the rotation that he has, because he is the anchor of a staff of young, but very mature pitchers.
    Straily, Wojo and Peacock are vying for that #5 job and I think one of them will be a reliable pitcher by the end of the season. One of the old guys may start off with the job but one of the young guys will replace him before long.
    Appel coming to MLB camp is to let the coaches work with him, He was there last spring but couldn’t pitch, so this is like his first real spring training. He may come up this year to the majors, but I’m really hoping he is still pitching for the Grizzlies in the playoffs in September and comes to camp in 2016 ready to compete for a starting job and has all the other BS behind him.


    • I think its safe to say when it comes to the rotation you are the GHF guy! I hope your positive outlooks are spot on.

      Keuchel and Lyles have almost the same number of professional innings, just under 1000. Neither one have much mileage. On the flipside, Keuchel had never hit 200 innings as a professional, until last year. He had been close in the minors, but never got there. Analytics suggest that a guy has trouble the next season after his first 200 inning season, but that usually occurs sub 24 – while Dallas is 27. The other part of comparing Keuchel and Lyles innings is Lyles came into pro ball at 18, Dallas did not. Those innings in college count as mileage too (some suggest that maybe part of Appel’s problems, as well as Rodon’s).

      If I had to guess an output from Keuchel this year – and I admit you can predict rain a year away easier than projecting pitchers – but I’ll take 27 starts and 185 innings. I don’t think he will get the 33 start, 220 inning projection some may have for that “ace” type pitcher, but I’m open to the argument that he will. He certainly has that “glavine-esque” style about him – throwing strikes, getting hitters to hit his pitch and not give in, and not striking out a lot is actually a good thing for his career as he is getting outs more effeciently – so I will be watching with a hopeful eye. Being a “BABIP” pitcher, a guy that gets outs by getting hitters to hit those weak grounders and pop ups, does leave him open to statistical anomalies that strike out guys don’t see as often though.

      McHugh is a one out pitch guy – when the league adjusts to his best pitch, will he be good enough to readjust. The Astros were his first franchise that thought so, and he awarded their diligence in season 1. I am much more skeptical that McHugh is here to stay than I am Keuchel, who could be an Astro starter for the next 5-7 years. We’ll know more by June.

      I think you are right about Oberholtzer. I don’t know that he has as good of command as Keuchel, but I can see him breaking out in a Keuchel/McHugh fashion. Throws strikes with multiple pitches, good down movement on most of them – I think by the end of the year he could very well be the second best pitcher on the staff behind Dallas.


  3. Lance McCullers Jr started off 2014 with a 70 rated fastball and a 65 rated Curve and specific instructions to spend the entire season working on his change up. By the end of the season he was throwing his change up 25-30 times per outing and he said that they had figured him out but were still continually beating his change up into the ground.
    So now you have a 21 year old pitcher who has a three good pitches and hasn’t gotten to AA ball yet. You have to figure that they are going to have him working on a fourth pitch this season and if he is in AA he will have what might be the best coaching staff in the minors and the best baseball team in the minors at Corpus Christi.
    One of the reasons McCullers walked a lot of batters this past year was because he had no command of the change up in the beginning and did not have a clue where it was going. By the time the playoffs started he felt he could throw it in any situation or any count.
    What a luxury it is to have somebody young enough and heady enough to do this and not let it back off or give it up.
    You know, by Spring of 2017 we might have one heck of a pitcher there at age 23. That is why I had him valued as one of three can’t misses in our minor leagues in the last post. I think this kid has the mentality and stuff to be a star. His delivery has some flaws, but that might be what they tackle next. Remember, a great closer ends up being a “can’t miss” player just as much as a great starter does.


  4. It is exciting having what looks to be an above-league average, though not dominant, rotation. To keep us on track for 2017 and beyond, here is what I would love to see from our starters:

    Keuchel – Start 28+ games; pitch 200+ innings; ERA at or under 3.00, WHIP at or under 1.25, K/9 up to 6.70, BB/9 down to 2.0, BAA down to .245-, and GO/AO up to 2.75/1+.

    McHugh – Start 28+ games; pitch 185+ innings; ERA at or under 3.00; WHIP at or under 1.20, K/9 stay at 9.00 or better; BB/9 down to 2.25 or less, BAA no worse than .225, and GO/AO up to 1.25/1.

    Feldman – Start 28+ games; pitch 180+ innings; ERA at or under 3.75; WHIP at or under 1.30; K/9 up to 5.45 or better; BB/9 down to 2.40 or less, BAA down to .250 or less, and GO/AO up to 1.25/1 or better.

    Obie – Start 28+ games; pitch 170+ innings; ERA at or under 4.25; WHIP no greater than 1.30; K/9 up to 6.00 or better; BB/9 stay at 1.75 or less; BAA down to .270 or less, and GO/AO at or near 1/1.

    Other guys – Start 50 or less games between them; pitch at least 280 innings in those games; ERA at or under 4.80; WHIP no greater than 1.45; K/9 at 5.75 or better; BB/9 no more than 2.55; and GO/AO no lower than .80/1.

    That is extremely optimistic on many levels, of course, but if we get close to that, with what looks to be an improved pen, this team would be a playoff quality team again. And while some will appropriately point out that these goals are unrealistic, hey – it is Spring, baseball is in the air, and hope springs eternal in the human breast.


    • Mr Bill – I hope you are a genius. With those number of innings being eaten, we are in the 7th on average before having to warm up the bullpen. If Mills were the manager, he would have two guys warming up for 4 innings with these starters.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I suppose we’ll start off Mark Appel, Josh Hader, Kyle Smith, and Jordan Jankowski at Corpus. Add in either Lance McCullers or Vincent Velazquez at some point and that could be really fun to watch. Hope they don’t use the tandem and mess everybody up.


    • Bill, you probably know how I feel about the tandem system. I hate it. But, CC might be the place we need the tandem system this season because we have so many prospects at that level.
      Hader, Smith, Velasquez, McCullers, Feliz, Appel, Emanuel, Rodgers, West all may start at CC plus there’s Hauschild and Devenski who were starters there last season.
      That’s a ton of starters. Plus Kyle Westwood spent the entire year at Lancaster and will be 24 this April. Brian Holmes spent this year at Lancaster and he’s 24 also. Some guys could relieve and some guys could be gone, but I see a tandem at CC and possibly Fresno this year. Feliz may have to go to Lancaster and pay his dues but they can’t afford to have him on the 40-man for two or three more years in the minors, can they?


  6. Aaaaaah…….the rotation. I love talking about these guys! Typically, the Astros start out pretty slow, so who knows if this year will be the same……I hope *not*.
    Oberholtzer is a BULL DOG, and he knows what is expected of him to keep his
    spot in the rotation….”if” he gets in the mix. One of the biggest problems last year, was NO run support. Give the kid 3 or 4 runs to work with, and watch him bear down. I’m excited to see (hear) how Alex White does this year….and Brad Peacock might come back from DL as a much better pitcher than last year. I had a feeling that Brad was so aware by Bo Porter, his confidence was shot.


  7. Of all the pitchers vying for the 5th spot Alex White intrigues me the most. I think, if healthy, he can be relatively good. After him I will be interested to see how Dan Straily pitches in ST. Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow for the Astros and I am really looking forward to baseball starting up.


    • I forgot about him, I forgot about Luis Cruz who is actually on the MLB roster, is a very young 24 years old and has only 24 innings at the AAA level. And I forgot Weiland who made this team under Luhnow in 2012 and basically has been in rehab for 2+ years and is 28 years old. Weiland is on CC’s roster and came from Boston with Lowrie in the Melancon trade in 1984.


  8. Jurickson Profar spent a year trying to heal his strained shoulder last year and went under the knife for it yesterday and will miss the entire season again. They are talking about the Rangers possibly non- tendering him next offseason and maybe letting him go. So he goes from the #1 prospect in all of baseball 2 years ago and now is perhaps a total loss to the Rangers. That is devastating, but Texas has not been a team to depend on prospects alone and still they are caught needing middle infielders. Profar was to be their SS of the future.
    Even if Brendan Rodgers is a HS player he is considered the best HS player in this draft and is a fine SS with tremendous power.
    The Aiken affair gave us the #2 pick, sliding us in front of Texas who now picks #3. If Arizona takes a college pitcher at #1, the Astros might take the top SS in the draft and make the Rangers bleed a little more by adding Rodgers to the Astros top prospect list. Then the Astros might add one of the top college pitchers with their #5 pick.


      • Not! Well, maybe a little bit. But we might have an excess of high minor league middle infielders.
        Truthfully, I think it’s time to start cranking the rivalry up between these two teams. It’s time that these two franchises started heatedly competing and trying to push each other. Being good and having an archnemisis is how you get noticed in baseball circles. I’m tired of our stadium being full of their fans. It is past time for Houston and Dallas to duke it out on the baseball field nineteen times a year and then steam about that Silver Boot all winter long.


    • That’s just good baseball sense. Shortstop is a position – like pitching – where you can never have enough talent. If you have more than you can use, you can always trade some away – and control to whom you trade that talent. I would not see selecting Rodgers as a ‘defensive’ or ‘vindictive’ choice – just one any intelligent GM would be tempted to make for organizational purposes.


      • Assuming it took him four years of seasoning, that choice would protect you in the event Correa follows the Miguel Cabrera weight gain path.


      • I absolutely agree with you and I was not suggesting drafting him for that reason. I am suggesting that it is a baseball fate that has put us in the position we are in to choose the best player available, if he’s there and have it be the guy that Texas would have chosen had they been #2 instead of all the sequential events that placed us there instead. They had Profar and he is hurt. We have Correa and have the exact same hopes they had. And, suddenly, here we are to be able to draft Rodgers instead of the Rangers. If Arizona takes him, the baseball fates take a completely different turn.
        Remember what the Nevin Story meant to our franchise and to the Yankee franchise. Could this be another big story in two franchise’s histories?


    • Andrus is only 26. I am pretty sure their SS of the future is their SS of the present.

      Profar was ticketed for 2B. Andrus is signed longterm. Now we can mince the bang for the buck and that Andrus is overpaid for a guy that has zero power and a low OBP, but the man plays everyday. He has been one of the most durable, consistent presence they have.

      Is it possible that DeShields ends up their 2B? We may not think he is ready, but given the rule 5 rules, he has to be there, so I suspect they will give him an opportunity.


      • I guess your basis for Profar being the second baseman of the future for the Rangers was his 336 games playing SS in the minors vs his 36 games playing 2B, most of which came in AA. Andrus signing his long term deal is not the future, but a disaster. Profar was a future SS from the time he was drafted. Andrus was a mirage that is fast turning into a dry river bed. The brilliant idea of making Profar a 2B only happened when Daniel’s saw another mirage in the distance that turned his second base Rock, Kinsler, into a Fat Boy DL’d first baseman named Fielder.
        I can absolutely guarantee you that every ranking service in baseball did not have Profar as the #1 prospect in baseball in 2013 because he was a second baseman.


      • Everyone in Dallas agrees that Andrus was bad both offensively and defensively. Truth is Andrus has had a WRC+ that was average only once in his career and that was in 2007. His excuse for having a bad year in 2014 was that he rested too much in the offseason..
        The Rangers owe him $15mil a year for the next 8 yrs. and they have no options out, although he has options out in 2018 and 2019. The Rangers have a 2023 option out of their last(9th) $15 mil, but he can negate that team out option with appearances in the previous two seasons.


    • And speaking of the draft, I know there is no chance the Astros would pick Aiken again, and we know he isn’t going number 1, but what if he falls to 6 and the Rangers take him? He is projected right now as a first 5 pick by a lot of draft boards despite last years debacle. The nightmare is a 2020 Cy Young winner Texas Ranger Brady Aiken!


  9. Nice column Chip –
    Who wins the fifth starter role? What the heck – I say Wojociechowski shows that a pitcher of Eastern European heritage can make it with the Astros – Mike Foltynewicz be damned.
    Barring injury, who would you project in the rotation at mid-season? At season’s end? Mid-season I say Feldman, McHugh, Keuchel, Obie and Wojo. End of season – swap out Appel for Obie
    Does/should Appel make it to Houston in ’15? Yep – I just said it
    Your thoughts on Obie? This is a key time – he could bust through like Keuchel di – but can we be that lucky again.
    The next Keuchel or McHugh in 2015: Wojo

    And this is all pulled from thin air…..


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