Why Astros’ biggest concern may be starting pitching

The natural thought for Astro fans heading into 2021 is to be concerned about the team’s outfield and relief pitching. In the outfield, three of the four main outfielders headed into free agency, George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick. They were able to re-sign Brantley, which helped somewhat with that situation, but still appear to be heading into the season with some question marks in replacing the other two OFs, especially Springer.

The team also lost closer Roberto Osuna, and relievers Chris Devenski, and Brad Peacock to free agency along with having Josh James undergoing hip injury which will have him missing an undetermined portion of the season. Admittedly none of that foursome did much for the team in 2020, but substituting for them for a whole season is more of a challenge than for portions of the COVID shortened 2020 season. The Astros filled in behind those relievers in 2020 with a combination of the good (Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Brooks Raley) and the not so good (Humberto Castellanos, Nivaldo Rodriguez, Carlos Sanabria). They have added a couple relievers in the off-season (Ryne Stanek, Pedro Baez) and between them, the four youngsters mentioned above, plus Ryan Pressly and the returning Joe Smith there is a decent set of arms to choose from for the bullpen.

So why would the starting rotation, which sports the five who ended the season pitching well in Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy, be an area of concern? Well, two reasons really…

An Increase in Innings

It is always a concern when pitchers experience a big increase in innings and in 2021 every Astro pitcher along with every pitcher in the majors will be experiencing that. On top of that, the Astros have some starting pitchers that have never pitched the 160 – 200 innings you might love to get from your starters even in the old normal seasons…..

Greinke – Greinke pitched 81.2 innings in 2020, including the playoffs and has thrown more than 200 innings in 5 of the last 6 seasons and 150+ innings in the last 7 before then. He would seem to be the least affected by this except that he will be turning 38 in October.

McCullers – Lance threw 69.2 total innings in 2020, had missed all of 2019 after Tommy John surgery and has never thrown more than the combined (majors and minors) 163.1 innings he threw in 2015. The Astros better not count on getting more than 100-125 innings out of Lance in 2021.

Valdez – Framber led the staff with 94.2 total innings in 2020. The most he has thrown were the combined 140 innings between the majors and minors in 2018. He would seem to be the best bet to up his workload with the least amount of problems, but still, a little vacay during the season might be called for.

Javier – Javier pitched 63.1 innings in the short 2020 season mostly in a starting role. He had clicked in with 110 minor league innings in 2018 and 113.2 in 2019 before last season’s call-up. The Astros should be careful with this special pitcher who showed in 2020 why he was their minor league pitcher of the year in 2019.

Urqidy – Due to (reportedly) COVID, Urquidy pitched only 45.1 innings in 2020. He pitched 145 combined minor and major league innings in 2019 but did miss all of 2017 after TJ surgery. He has been very good since the Astros called him up and they need to be very careful with him.

Starting Depth – Even in a regular-season teams need a bounty of starters. Last year in only 60 games the Astros used 10 different starters. In 2019, 14 pitchers started for the team with 9 of them having at least five starts. Of the five who started in 2020 (besides the core five), it included Justin Verlander, who likely won’t start a game in 2021, Josh James who will likely not start if he does return from injury, Chase De Jong, who is gone, Brandon Bielak who was up then down and Luis Garcia, who looked good in his one shot.

The Astros will need more than the core five in 2021, perhaps a lot more, but who will it be? The white whale the team has been chasing for years is Forrest Whitley. Is this the year when his health, performance and opportunity meld? Will Garcia get another shot after showing well in 2020? Does Bryan Abreu return from the outs to be on the ins? Will Austin Pruitt do what he was brought in to do and swing from the bullpen into the starting rotation? Will Bielak get another shot to show that he can pitch like he did in his first starts? Might someone like Paredes go back to start? Will youngsters unseen to date, such as Jairo Solis, Peter Solomon and Tyler Ivey do what Javier did last year and jump into the rotation? Is there someone beyond this group that can jump up and grab an opportunity at the brass ring?

And will James Click grab a cheap veteran or two as insurance against the need?

The rotation could be a strength or it could be an early-season strength that morphs into a question mark as the season progresses. Either way, it is an area of concern.

21 comments on “Why Astros’ biggest concern may be starting pitching

  1. You go with the pitchers you have. It doesn’t do any good to worry about something like a pitcher getting hurt. That won’t stop an injury.
    I honestly hope that Forrest Whitley is called up sometime with no notice to start, because I think he would perform better without having a chance to think about it and psych himself out.
    The Astros go into camp with a complete, healthy rotation. That is way farther ahead than they were when they started in the middle of last summer.
    They have a stable of pitchers that will be in CC and Sugarland. Those are some guys who will get a shot this year, too. I think they might find another
    veteran starter between now and opening day.
    I am not concerned about a team that brings back all five starting pitchers. Especially when four of them are in their twenties and have playoff experience and the fifth guy is a 38 year old genius of a pitcher. That’s just my take. What’s yours?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah signed Souza to a minor league deal – he’ll be a non roster invite. Not much risk – he’ll just be cheap depth protection for the corner OF

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  2. Starting pitching is probably going to be a huge problem league wide but one thing that might help is a somewhat normal Spring training. Last year it seemed like pitchers were dropping like flys early in the season, probably in no small part due to inconsistent and/or inadequate preparation. For all of those who decry the length of Spring training last year may have pointed out that 5-6 weeks of prep for pitchers is actually appropriate. I do agree with OP1 regarding the age of our guys. I’m really hoping Abreu bounces back. I also hope Whitley doesn’t end up the next Mark Appel. Time for him to put up or shut up or at least show enough to be good trade bait.

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  3. Every team has starting pitching concerns. We’re better off than most. And we’ve got viable options just down the road. There will be injuries and rest periods. We’ll probably see ten guys or more get starts during the season. And I see Verlander pitching in September too.

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  4. Per my count, there are 40 man on Active Roster. JV and Josh James will probably drop off at the end of ST leaving 38. Of those, per Fangraphs, the following players have options: Bregman, Gurriel, Yordan, and Tucker. Then we have Straw, Toro, McCormick, Nova, & Stubbs with 2 or more options. Pitchers: SP of Valdez, Urquidy, & Javier with 2 or more. Relievers: “A Cast of Thousands.” So it looks like a lot of planning to shuffle the Active roster most of the season.

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  5. As with the Rays philosophy of starting closers and short relief guys I wonder if we’ll do the same, a modified effort, or business as usual. I guess it depends on Click’s and Dusty’s take on it all. I think we have the where with all to do any of those three options. I wouldn’t mind the modified effort. Especially given the difficulties we encountered last year. Let’s take it slow and easy and work into the fast lane rather than trying to merge at 70 mph.

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  6. I get most of my inklings by listening to interviews like this. Both Sparks/Kalas do such a good job of asking, in this case of Stanek and Castro to help fill in a lot questions looming. At the 33 minute mark, they ask Jason what he thought with new faces in our pitching staff, what it was like facing them? His answer is pretty much all you need to know about the theme of Dan’s article.

    For me, pitching is the absolute least of Astros’ worries.

    https://art19.com/shows/houston-astros-podcast

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  7. I read an article recently that was about how minor league players struggled during last year trying to make ends meet. There was something in that article that meant a lot to me.
    According to the writer, in his research he found that there were three organizations that went above and beyond other clubs to take care of their minor league players in 2020 and they were the Dodgers, Astros and Indians.
    Just thought I’d mention that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks OP, nice to know that the “evil cheaters” Astros have a heart. It is good to see that a team like the Indians who have been shedding salary at the major league level did not go cheap on their minor leaguers. I would say something nice about he Dodgers but I might burst into flames.

      Liked by 2 people

    • It really goes to the culture within, and that always reflects from top down. By all accounts, Jim Crane is a solid philanthropist. And that reflects on his upbringing and mentorship in Dr Robert Tomkins, who was so influential because Jim lost his father.

      Listening to minor leaguers talk about how close all the guys are at each level, fostered by those managers; or listening to major leaguers talk about how 2020 was total lockdown, so their only tie to come together was at the park. They all got much earlier starts just to stay more connected instead of couped up in their rooms.

      LAD is changing under Andrew Friedman. They are going to be a force for a LONG time, and main reason Padres have to start going All-In to contend.

      On the article and pitching, one of the things that really stands out for me is the sheer numbers of elite curveball throwers we have within. If I had to list a top 5 in no particular order

      1. Forrest Whitley
      2. Bryan Abreu
      3. Andre Scrubb
      4. Lance McCullers
      5. Hunter Brown

      When future Hall of Fame, Zack Greinke doesn’t even make the list, you know you’re loaded for bear. Stand by, 2021 is going to be the Year of the Pitcher in Houston. I really can’t wait to see Shawn Dubin in camp after all the hype he’s generating. Looking for bounceback years from two excellent control pitchers Urquidy and Bielak. And the long awaited return of Solomon and Solis — burning question which will debut first? The resident prospect experts I value really like Tyler Ivey and Luis Garcia, putting them at #2’s respectively. That is HIGH HIGH praise!

      Since Torres and Conine have a year to burn, if either gets a call up, that should tell the readers they are too good to hold down and that they have passed at least a dozen guys who would otherwise get a first call. It’s going to be like Christmas when I was 5 this entire season!

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      • And yet, no love for our system from the outside. It’s amazing that every guy we DFA gets immediately picked up by another team, but we still are rated one of the weakest farm systems. Apparently, TINSTAAPP is now the prevailing philosophy in the small realm of minor league ranking experts.
        I can’t wait to see our minor league pitching this year.

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      • Maybe that adds a little chip on their shoulder, Op. HOU enters a phase where they are no longer among the clear AL favorites.

        Oh, one thing more to add. Correa’s comments that he loved that 2020 team the best because of the young guys’ energy. This bodes really well for them coming together with such a nice blend of young and old. Watching how they play the game down in Dominican over the Winter, I can see where we’re becoming more of demonstrative group ourselves.

        Wouldn’t it be something if Yordan comes back better than ever? Something if Brantley rubs off on Tucker, Yuli & Diaz take Leon under their wing, if McCullers & his killer instinct has his best year ever and puts the rotation on his shoulders finally? These are actually my expectations.

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  8. As an old friend of a family member, I get updates from time to time on the Orioles and specifically Grayson Rodriguez. He has been told when to report to Aberdeen (High A). But he was really disappointed that many of the players off the Delmarva Shorebirds Championship team of 2019 were cut from the minor league roster. It is so easy to forget those in the minors are real people with real dreams and a future. A select few make it and the rest are discarded.

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  9. I’m just catching up on the sports news of the weekend. Si.com has called the Arenado trade a heist, especially since the Rockies are sending 50 million along with the player.

    But the Cards, assuming they work the contract out, will still be paying the guy 150 million over the next 6 years. Heck of a player, offensively and maybe even more impressive defensively. But away from Colorado, he’s a got a lifetime .793 OPS and a .322 OBP and hits .263. That’s almost pedestrian. Some guys leave Denver and keep hitting. But that’s a lot of money for a guy that has historically put up his numbers at home.

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      • I’m the tinfoil hat wearer of our bunch on contracts, but it makes me wonder if COL was planning for Arenado to trigger the opt out clause when they initially signed him and became greatly concerned he would not do so. The sportswriters keep writing from the angle that Colorado was worried they would lose him for nothing, but when you have to send that much money across it’s a salary dump.

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  10. Also, how well Arenado hits in St. Louis this coming year could go a long way in determining how much Story will get in free agency next year..

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    • I don’t keep up with other teams much. So let me get this straight. The Rockies signed a very good player to a contract of $260 Million over 8 years. Then 2 years later, pay another team $50 Million of it to take him off their hands?

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  11. So MLB made a proposal to MLBPA for this season: # of games, full pay, expanded playoffs, universal DH, a delayed start.
    It took 2 days for this to get out and we find out about it when it is reported that the MLBPA is sure to reject it tonight.
    Damn, I hate the business of baseball!

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