When discussing the Houston Astros starting rotation for this upcoming season it seems that many analysts are divided on just where the Astros starting rotation ranks. Opinions range from the staff being above average to some stating that they have 2 number 3 pitchers, 2 number 4 or 5 pitchers, and 1 unknown. In this post we will take a brief look at each member of the projected rotation and see what their potential level could be.
The Astros 2011 rotation will include the 4 holdovers from last year, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, and Bud Norris. The final spot in the rotation will be filled from the likes Ryan Rowland-Smith, Nelson Figuerora, Aneury Rodriguez, Lance Pendleton, and Jordan Lyles. The Astros announced on Tuesday that they are not going to be considering Fernando Abad for a starting role due to the fact that he is needed more this year as the key lefty in the pen, thus eliminating one intriguing candidate already. To try and gauge what type of production we can expect from the rotation next year we will look at each player’s career statistics based upon FanGraphs to try and guess what can be expected. First up is Brett Myers.
Brett Myers had a career year last year posting a 3.14 ERA while throwing 223 innings and striking out 180 batters. This performance along with the Roy Oswalt trade led to Ed Wade signing Myers to an extension. The closest Myers has ever came to this performance in the past was during his 2005 and 2006 seasons when he posted a 3.72 and a 3.91 ERA while throwing close to 198+ innings both years. Since then however he was injured in 07, had a good 08, and was injured again in 2009. This brings us to his stellar 2010 which netted Myers a WAR of 4.0. The problem that last year’s performance presents is trying to figure out if it was an outlier, or if another great year from Myers can be expected. Due to the fact that Myers has 9 years of big league experience and his career ERA is 4.20, about 1 run higher than last year’s performance, and a career FIP of 4.38, almost 1 run higher than last year, it is safe to assume that Myers performance will shift more towards his career average and away from 2010. This is not horrible news for the Astros however, because while this type of production does not scream ace material, it does provide the Astros with a very serviceable and dependable starter. If you wanted to look at Myers through an optimistic lens you could play the Brad Arnsberg card and say that this was Myers first year under Arnsberg, and that another year like last year could be expected again. Myers gave credit to Arnsberg last year stating that he has specific plans each outing for Myers which allows him to go out and focus on the job at hand and takes out a lot of the thought process while he is on the mound. He just has to worry about executing the plan that was laid out by Arnsberg. Whether or not the Arnsberg factor will keep Myers 2011 numbers similar to 2010 is unknown, but it will add to the speculation as to whether we get the 2010 version of Myers or the career version of Myers next year.
Wandy’s 2010 was a tale of two seasons. During the first half of the season Rodriguez displayed the frustrating version of Wandy that was disappointing to watch during his first 3 years in the majors. His second half was a different story though as he displayed the greatness that was on display in 2009. Wandy’s 2011 probably has more upside than Myers because of the fact that minus last year’s slow start he has progressed each year that he has been in the majors. During his last 3 years he has posted a solid strikeout rate hovering around the mid 8’s, and both an ERA and FIP at about 3.50. Only adding to Wandy’s stature is the fact that many left-handers are late bloomers and put things together in the later stages of their careers. He also does not rely on an overpowering fastball which means that he should age well. While it is probably safe to guess that Rodriguez will put up numbers in 2011 similar to that of 2009 and 2010, it is not out of the realm of possibilities for him to finally put it all together and build on what was a strong second half last year and turn into an elite pitcher in 2011.
Bud Norris salvaged his year by finishing strong and while leaving something to be desired, had a respectable first full year in the majors. It appears that Bud’s keys to success lie in his ability to continue to develop his changeup, show improved control, and better focus when he gets into jams. Numbers wise Bud’s 2010 ERA of 4.92 does not tell the whole store as his FIP was that of 4.17 meaning he was slightly unlucky with the factors that were out of his control. He threw a total of 166 innings last year which was slightly less than the 175 he threw in 2009 between triple-A and the big league club. Since Bud entered the Astros farm system he has consistently posted an FIP in the 3’s which could suggest that we could see improvement from Bud in his second year in the majors. The worst case scenario is that Bud is unable to develop his changeup and has to make a switch to the back end of the Astros bullpen where he would be better suited as a two pitch pitcher. The best case scenario has Bud being able to put everything together and turn into the Astros version of the Yankees Philip Hughes as he has tons of upside.
J.A. Happ was Houston’s big return in the Roy Oswalt trade with the Phillies netting them a capable major league ready starter that was able to impact the big league club immediately. Happ is similar to Norris in the fact that he does not have the major league track record that Myers and Wandy have. Happ’s best year was in 2009 when he went 12-4 throwing 166 innings and finished second in the rookie of the year voting for that year. However when taking a deeper look into that season you see that his strikeout per nine innings ratio was 6.45, and that while his ERA was 2.93 his FIP was 4.33 which is higher than what Bud’s was last year. Happ did have 2 full years at the triple-A level where he posted an FIP of 4.11 in 2007, and 3.40 in 2008 thus establishing somewhat of a track record for success at the minor league level. This could give you reason to believe that he can post respectable numbers in 2011 if healthy. Happ is a pitcher who likes to work up in the zone off of his fastball, but appears to have below average off-speed offerings and also below average control. Happ could turn into another late blooming lefty for the Astros, but would first have to figure out how to cut down on his walks and last deeper into games.
Nelson Figuerora filled in admirably for the Astros in the fifth spot of the rotation last year after Felipe Paulino was injured. Nelson who has been a journeyman of a pitcher posted a career low 3.29 ERA last year while pitching a total of 93 innings between the Phillies and the Astros. Nelson carries a career ERA of 4.29 and an FIP of 4.79 between the majors and the minors. While it appears that he will be thrown in the mix of competition that exists for the fifth spot in the rotation he profiles better in the middle relief swingman role that he played last year. Depth is always something good to have in any rotation, and having a pitcher that can come in and do what he did last year when injuries arise could prove to be very valuable.
Ryan Rowland-Smith will be the first to admit that he is ready to put 2010 behind him. 2010 saw him posting a career high ERA of 6.75 while also posting a career low strikeout per 9 innings ratio of 4.03. While his career totals for ERA is 4.57 and FIP is 4.97 between the majors and minors an alarming factor when considering him for the rotation is that he has never thrown more than 152 innings in his career. Because of this factor coupled with his disastrous 2010 it would seem like he would be better suited serving the role of a lefty out of the pen unless he just overwhelms all of his competition for the fifth starter spot in spring training.
One of two rule 5 picks made by the Astros this year Rodriguez would seem to have a leg up on the other contestants for the fifth spot due to his amount of innings pitched at the triple-A level, and his overall performance. Rodriguez has a solid minor league track record and also threw 113 innings at the triple-A level last year and also had an impressive fall, which should give him a leg up on the likes of Jordan Lyles and Lance Pendleton. Last year Rodriguez posted an ERA of 3.80 with a strikeout rate of 7.44. He projects as a tall 6-4 pitcher that has a four pitch repertoire and an easy delivery. Since Rodriguez is an unknown commodity at the major league level, if he made the rotation out of spring training then the Astros backup plan could potentially be the serviceable Figuerora in the event that Rodriguez falters. They could then move him to the bullpen to keep him on the major league roster instead of having to offer him back to the Rays, because the Astros could definitely use more young pitchers who profile as starters.
A native of Houston, Lance has stated this offseason that it would be his dream come true to pitch for the Astros. Like Rodriguez, Pendleton has never pitched at the major league level. Pendleton had a good year last year at the double-A level posting a 3.43 ERA in 120 innings pitched, which earned him a promotion to triple-A where he threw 34 additional innings. Lance would definitely be viewed as a dark horse to win the fifth spot out of spring training based on the amount of innings pitched at triple-A relative to his age, but could be considered as a long relief role candidate in the bullpen. However it does appear to be a pretty open competition for the remaining candidates for the fifth spot in the Astros rotation and the role could be awarded to the best performance of spring training based on the hints that Ed Wade and Mills have been dropping, therefore anything could happen.
You knew that his name would come up eventually in this discussion as our own minor league celebrity has been thoroughly discussed and has been hyped as being everything from a number 3 pitcher to our version of Stephen Strasburg. At just 19 years old Jordan made it to the highest level of minor league ball throwing 31 innings at the triple-A level like Lance Pendleton did. Although his triple-A debut was unimpressive his 2010 was anything but. In double-A Lyles posted a 3.12 ERA with a 3.36 FIP, and a strikeout per 9 innings ratio of 8.15. It is also worth mentioning that his FIP at the triple-A level was 3.86 meaning that his numbers may be somewhat deceiving at that level. While Lyles consistently gets criticized for his lack of a truly outstanding pitch he continues to perform well at each stop he’s made in the system. And at just 20 years old this season his fastball velocity could possibly still improve. Where Lyles shines is his command where his walks per nine innings have been consistently solid. While Lyles would bring a level of excitement for fans if he made the club out of spring training, the best case scenario would probably entail one of the other candidates winning the job, and Lyles returning to triple-A for additional seasoning. This would allow the Astros to take a slightly more cautious approach with him and make sure that he is ready to hit the ground running at the major league level.
While the Astros 2011 starting rotation may lack a true ace heading into the start of the season, they do have potential candidates that could put up ace-like numbers this year. One of the most exciting stories in spring training this year will be the competition for the fifth starter spot, and if the winner is one of the younger candidates then that excitement could rollover into the start of the year. It will also be interesting to see if Norris and Happ can live up to their potential, If Wandy develops into the pitcher that he can be, and if Myers is able to build on an impressive 2010 season.