An elite rotation has been one of the key elements of the Astros’ success in recent years. Justin Verlander the team has led the team for the last four plus years and the club has seen the likes Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier and José Urquidy step forward as player development success stories.
Even after Verlander’s departure, Houston still has one of the strongest top-of-the-rotation groups in the sport. Valdez is a borderline Cy Young contender. Javier swings bats at an elite rate and has received a $64MM contract extension. Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. Each has shown #2/3 starter ability in recent years. Urquidy isn’t quite as high-octane but he’s a very solid back starter with excellent control. Right behind that group is Hunter Brownarguably one of the top five pitching prospects in the sport allowed just two runs in his first 20 2/3 MLB innings late last season.
It’s a group with upside, even though the injury bug has already hit before Opening Day. McCullers will not be ready for the start of the season thanks to a muscle strain in his throwing arm and, as of yesterday, had not yet been cleared to start playing catch. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Even if there aren’t long-term concerns, the Astros will almost certainly be without McCullers for a while soon. That in itself might not be a big issue because Brown can step into the vacant rotation spot. But one more injury could test Houston’s depth, forcing them to contend with a largely unproven group of hitters from the upper minors. Let’s take a look through some of the depth options manager Dusty Baker could rely on if anyone else in his top five goes down.
Despite turning 28 within the week of Opening Day, France has zero MLB experience. The club thought highly of him to add him to the 40-man roster in November to ensure they didn’t lose him in the Rule 5 draft, however. The 6’0″ righty started 15 of 34 outings with Triple-A Sugar Land last season, working to a 3.90 ERA with a solid 28.3% strikeout percentage but a worrisome 10.6% walk rate in 110 2/3 innings. Baseball America ranked him as the organization’s #21 prospect this winter, praising his catchy delivery and five-pitch mix of mostly conventional stuff but raising questions about the consistency of his strikeout.
Once considered by many as the sport’s most talented pitching prospect, Whitley has seen his stock plummet since he reached Double-A as a 20-year-old five seasons ago. He is now 25 and has yet to make it to the major leagues, although the Astros have kept him on the 40-man roster for the past two seasons. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2021 and has missed much of the rehabilitation over the past few years. Whitley returned for ten trips to Sugar Land, posting a 7.09 ERA while walking nearly 16% of opposing hitters in 33 innings.
It’s not uncommon for pitchers to struggle with their control in their immediate returns after Tommy John rehab, but the clock is ticking for Whitley to establish any kind of role on Houston’s staff. He currently has one minor league option left. While the Astros could petition for the fourth pick next season in light of Whitley’s injury and 2018 suspension for violating the minor league substance abuse policy, it’s worth asking if they’d keep him on the 40-man roster for another. winter if he doesn’t at least step up in Triple-A. Baseball America now ranks him as the #28 prospect in the Houston system.
In addition to the 40-man roster through the 2021-22 season, Durbin spent last year on an optional assignment to Sugar Land. He missed time with a forearm strain and worked in a hybrid role when he took the mound, starting just 12 of 23 outings. Over 58 1/3 frames, he posted a 4.78 ERA with an outstanding 32.1% strikeout rate but an unsustainable 12.9% walk rate. If not for a major step forward with his control, he would be more of a bullpen option for the big league club. BA ranked him 25th on the organizational prospect list, projecting him as a multi-inning reliever.
Unlike the three pitchers above him on this list, Bielak has some MLB experience. He has appeared in 45 games over the past three seasons but started only eight, none of which came last year. Soon to be 27, the 6’2″ righty has a 5.15 ERA over 94 1/3 career big league frames. He continued to work primarily as a starter in Triple-A, opening 14 of his 23 appearances last year. In 88 2/3 innings there, he posted a solid 3.15 ERA but with a higher strikeout average and walk rate (22.2% and 11.1%, respectively). Bielak has a 40-man roster spot as of summer 2020 and has one option year remaining.
Signed to a minor league contract with a Spring Training non-roster invite, Garcia has been a reliever for his entire career until the second half of last season. The Tigers extended him as a starter in Triple-A in mid-July. Garcia made 11 starts for their major league affiliate in Toledo and caught the ball four times at the major league level. Although he allowed just eight runs in 20 1/3 MLB innings, he had a pedestrian 17:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Detroit cut him loose at the end of the season, sending him to elite-league free agency after going unclaimed on waivers.
Misael Tamarez/Jaime Melendez/Jayden Murray
Each of this group logged some upper minor work last season, mostly in Double-A. All have recently been rightly considered in the bottom half of the Astros’ top 30 organizational prospects but none appear to be a clear rotation piece for 2023. Any of the three could have their way included at some point but they all expect it. start the year in the minors, especially since no one has yet claimed a spot on the 40-man roster.
It’s not a group of deep starters with a lot of big league experience. While that may not be a pressing concern out of the gate, it is unlikely for a club to tackle a 162-game schedule relying on five or six starters. Between McCullers’ injury and perhaps a desire to keep track of Brown’s workload — he threw 126 1/3 innings last season between Triple-A and the big leagues — it stands to reason that the front office could look at an addition or two yet.
Players like it Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy and Michael Pineda remain unsigned and look like candidates for minor league deals at this stage of the offseason. It would make sense for first-year general manager Dana Brown, who has spoken a few times about his desire to bring in as much rotation depth as possible to bring in someone from that group or scour the waiver wire for help. The Astros have enough impact talent at the top of the lineup they don’t need any flashy acquisitions but there is plenty of room to expand the group in the upper minors with a veteran.