In football, if you can’t run the football and play defense, you aren’t going to win many games.
In hockey, a strong goalie — or not — often defines your win-loss record.
In baseball, it’s pitching and defense. History is replete with examples of great hitting teams that run up against good pitching and fall flat. Doesn’t matter if it’s little league or major league.
Same will be true with the Astros in 2017. And that’s the reason you’ve seen Houston connected to almost every viable pitching addition from Kansas City to Chicago and every free agent in between.
Jeff Luhnow believes he can’t — or at least won’t — go to battle with his rotation and bullpen as it is now. He may tell you that he’s okay with the status quo, but his actions portend otherwise. And he won’t make the upgrades to the hitting he has without ensuring the pitching is at least A if not A-.
Now, the fact that he’s searching the countryside for pitching tells you something else. Luhnow is not satisfied with about his rotation. He either doesn’t have confidence in the health of Dallas Keuchel and/or Lance McCullers Jr. or he’s just ready for a more consistent upgrade to Collin McHugh and/or Mike Fiers.
Keuchel, McCullers and newbie Charlie Morton seem set. Joe Musgrove, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock seem destined for a shot at the back-end of the rotation. But it’s clear that Luhnow wants more than just an innings-eater like Fiers or McHugh now. Those pitchers were simply the bridge to get you to the promised land.
And, while he may be happy and content to run with Keuchel and McCullers, Luhnow may simply be in search for an upgrade to the upper-middle part of the rotation in case one of those falters again.
Make no mistake, however: The rotation is the key to 2017. Houston may increase its run production, lower its K/9, run the bases better, but it will only be to set up the pitching and defense. Sure, Carlos Correa will have a game-winning hit or two and Jose Altuve will steal a base that scores that late-inning run. But unless Keuchel, McCullers and others go deep into games and Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson and Will Harris tie up the back-end, the Astros will still struggle. If not in the regular season, then when the playoffs roll around.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the rotation:
The crafty left-hander is the key to the rotation. As he goes, so goes the Astros, especially if Luhnow isn’t successful in landing another TOR pitcher. The question for Keuchel is will he be the Cy Young winner of 2015 or the regressive pitcher of 2016? Or somewhere in between? At his projected $9.5 million salary for 2017 — and higher next year — Keuchel is no longer a bargain unless he produces as a #1 or #2. That means 30+ starts and at least 2014-like numbers.
Some would call McCullers — and not Keuchel — the key to rotation success. He’s younger (23), throws harder and generally seems to have more upside. The question for LMJ is can he handle the rigors of a 162-game schedule and make those 30+ starts of a strong TOR guy? Yes, he has the stuff, but he has more than 100 IP in two seasons thus far (2013 and 2015). He needs an injury-free season and 160+ IP this season to bust out and lose the questions marks.
Still the best pickup of Luhnow’s Astros’ career and he’ll be a bargain again this year at the projected $4.6 million. He led the team in wins, starts, Ks, IP, K/BB ratio and other key indicators, but that was in part due to poor seasons from others. His 4.34 ERA and 1.408 WHIP won’t win him many awards. Nonetheless, he’s been a steady, consistent if not dependable cog in the rotation since joining the team in 2014. At this point, however, it appears Luhnow wants more than just steady.
See Collin McHugh. Steady, innings-eater who will make about $4.3 million this year. For a pitcher who will give you 30 starts — as he has each of the last two seasons — that’s a bargain. But, if you can trade a steady, consistent McHugh and Fiers for an upgrade equal to Keuchel or McCullers, you do it. Frankly, whether it’s before opening day or by mid-season, Fiers isn’t likely to be in an Astros’ uniform for the entirety of 2017.
Hmmm, did Luhnow sign Morton to make either McHugh or Fiers expendable? At two years, $14 million, Luhnow likes something about this guy that doesn’t necessarily show up in any of the basic stats (e.g. starts, ERA, K/BB, WHIP etc.). It’s also likely the Astros aren’t expecting to pay him $7 million a season to pull up the back-end of the rotation either.
Perhaps the ace up Luhnow’s and manager A.J. Hinch‘s sleeves. The 26-year-old was the after thought in the Brett Myers trade and perhaps may be the late bloomer destined to usurp innings from someone. The big question for this fan favorite is: Is he the real deal, can he handle 150+ IP or would he best serve the team in the bullpen a la Will Harris?
Like Devenski, Musgrove was the famed PTBNL in the J.A. Happ deal in 2012 and has only begun to hit his stride at 24. The former first round pick of the Blue Jays, Musgrove is under team control through 2023, so he’ll have every opportunity to make things work. In 2017, it’s quite possible he’ll have a rotation spot that will be his to lose as the team — and most fans — expect to see him succeed. Like others, his question will be how many innings the Astros can count on him for. Can they stretch him out for 150 IP? In six seasons, he’s pitched in only 32 professional games (399.1 IP), though he does seem destined as a starter.
These are some of the options. Yes, there are only five rotation spots, but starting a spring training with 6-7 options for those spots is not a bad thing. As I’ve mentioned before, these things have a way of working themselves out.
A good early spring from either Devenski or Musgrove will allow Luhnow to continue to shop Fiers and even McHugh, if they’re still in Houston by February or March.
So, here are your questions for today:
- Assuming no other movement, name your starting rotation.
- Keuchel is obviously the ace of the staff currently. By mid-season or season’s end, will that change? If so, who do you project?
- Which Keuchel do you predict will show up in 2017? The 2014, 2015 or 2016 version?
- What concerns you most about using the seven pitchers above to fill out the rotation?
- Luhnow is not satisfied with the choices he currently has. What do you believe worries him the most?
- And, a couple of Francis Martes questions:
- Will Martes be a factor for Houston in 2017?
- Who will be a better starter in 2019: Martes or Jose Quintana, whom the Astros have rumored interest in?