The Houston Astros don’t have a lot of questions to answer when rouding out their roster this winter but they may opt to add a 5th starter from outside the organization and improve starting pitcher depth which is quite weak. Four spots are locks; Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, and J.A. Happ are secure. And Ed Wade has the luxury of ignoring handedness thanks to Rodriguez and Happ who are both above-average leftys. The fifth starter role was a bit of a revolving door in 2010 with 5 different players getting starts in the spot after Roy Oswalt was traded to Philadelphia at the end of July. Houston certainly hopes to nail down a rotation that, barring injury, will prove consistent all year.
Internal Options; We’ll start by examining merchandise already on the shelves.
Felipe Paulino: Paulino is the leading candidate for the 5th spot. He served in the same capacity last season before an injury in mid-July. While not an ace, Paulino has above average strikeout-stuff and if healthy for a full season could be one of the better 5th starters in the NL. He’ll make $$$ in 2011.
Nelson Figueroa: Figueroa made 10 starts late in the season after Paulino went down and pitched great. A 3.22 ERA is more than acceptable for a 5th starter but Figueroa will most likely be playing for somewhere else in 2011. And unjustly it will probably be a Triple-A affiliate. He’s in his first arbitration eligible year and will be 37 next season.
Wesley Wright, LHP: Wright made 8 spot starts in 2010 but did not shine. I expect him to open the season in Houston’s bullpen and be a spot starter type again in 2011. He’s probably not a viable option to spend a year in the rotation.
Chris Sampson: Sampson has started off-and-on for the Astros major league club the past 4+ seasons. He made a career high 19 starts in 2007 and pitched pretty well. However, he’s a Quadruple-A player whose only niche is long reliever/spot starter. Sampson is in his 2nd arbitration eligible year so time will tell if he’s in Houston in 2011.
Josh Banks: Banks made 1 start for Houston in 2010 and pitched poorly. The semi-promise he showed with the Padres in 2008 seems to have stayed in Petco Park.
Free Agents; If Houston doesn’t fill the final rotation spot with an internal option, they won’t find a wealth of strong arms on the free agent market. We can eliminate Cliff Lee, Jorge De La Rosa, Carl Pavano, Javier Vasquez, and Ben Sheets just on money alone. Houston also tends to shy away from injury risks so that means no Erik Bedard, Brandon Webb, Chris B. Young, Justin Duchscherer, or Brad Penny, leaving the following candidates to fill out Houston’s rotation.
Jake Westbrook: Probably the surest thing on this list. He consistently gives you strong outings and a chance to win which is all you can ask of a 5th starter. However, he’s almost one of the surest bets on this list to remain with his latest employer. I expect him back in St. Louis.
Dave Bush: Bush made $4.22 million last year with Milwaukee which is probably a fair price for him. Other than an inexplicable 2009, Bush has been a pretty solid back-of-the-rotation guy but with the scarcity of pitching talent on the market and the fact he’s young for this group at 30 years old, he’ll probably get a 3-yr deal that will be more than what the Astros would, and should, pay for him.
Rodrigo Lopez: Lopez is a very intriguing option. He made just $650,000 in 2010 but pitched over 200 innings. Granted, his 5.00 ERA leaves something to be desired, you have to expect that to come down after leaving the Arizona desert no matter where he goes. I’ll take a guy who makes under $1,000,000 and pitches 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-4s as my fifth starter anyday.
Kevin Correia: Your guess is as good as mine. Will 2011 bring a return to 2009 when Correia posted a 3.91 ERA over 198 innings? Or will we get 2010 Correia and his 5.40 ERA? At 29, and coming off a down year in which he made $3.6 million, he could be a pretty inexpensive and relatively young replacement but his career 90 ERA+ leaves a lot to be desired.
Jon Garland: Coming off a resurgent year in San Diego, Garland will most likely command an offer higher than what Houston will be willing to give a veteran place-filler. Even so, he could make the Astros rotation extremely tough while we wait for Jordan Lyles, Nick Foltynewicz, and the rest of the boys down on the farm. I can easily see Garland in a Dodgers uniform.
Doug Davis LHP: If he stays healthy in 2011, Davis could be a steal for whoever his employer is but I don’t expect it to be Houston. His 2009 season was fantastic for a back-end guy but he wasn’t healthy most of 2010 and when he was, he wasn’t good. Davis is 36 and coming off injury so the Astros will most likely look elsewhere.
Jeff Francis LHP: The former Rockies ace is one of the higher ceiling guys here but like Doug Davis, is coming off injuries since his last big season. Francis will probably get slightly overpaid by a contender due to his lefthandedness and the fact he’s a former 17-game winner so I don’t see him in Houston.
Bruce Chen LHP: Better late than never, I suppose. The one-time can’t miss prospect had one of the best stretches of his career in 2010 for the Royals. He’ll test the market but at 33 with an unpredictable track record for 10 different teams (including 12 easily forgotten innings for Houston in 2003) he probably won’t be highly sought after. Chen could be an effective 5th starter if he repeats last season but that’s his upside.
Jeremy Bonderman: Bonderman is an interesting case. He’s coming off a 4-yr, $38 million deal in which he amassed just 427 innings and posted a 5.19 ERA. The former first round pick has always been considered a high-ceiling underachiever but I fail to see the ceiling. Bonderman won’t get anywhere near the money of his last deal but I still don’t think he’d be a wise addition for the Astros.
Mike Hampton LHP: Doesn’t just thinking about it kind of give you butterflies? A former Cy Young-winner returns to his first franchise where he had his greatest successes for a farewell redemption tour before handing the reigns to the next great young Astros hurler? Hampton is the definition of ‘injury prone’ but he’d cost next to nothing, you could make his contract heavily incentive-laden, and it would be a sentimental experiment.
Vicente Padilla: 2002 and 2003 were a long time ago. Padilla made $5.03 Million in 2010 for the LA Dodgers and while he showed he could be one of the more talented pitchers on this list he’s also one of the least durable. Since his two great seasons for the Phillies, Padilla has pitched more than 172 innings once.
Freddy Garcia: Please stay away Houston. Garcia’s 12-6 record and 4.64 ERA were a mirage. And not even a great one. His 1.98 K:BB ratio was the worst since his second season in the majors in 2000.
I sincerely hope Ed Wade and Drayton McLane mean it when they say they’re dedicated to a youth movement in Houston. I don’t want to see them give a multi-year deal to one of these declining veterans. If it were me, I’d make the spot Paulino’s to lose and I’d give Rodrigo Lopez a 1-yr deal as an insurance policy/spot starter. We’ll see if the Astros backslide and spend money they shouldn’t on a washed up veteran who plays a sub-replacement player lever. (Sorry, Pedro Feliz)