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.