The only race of importance this spring has come to an end as Nelson Figueroa won the fifth spot in the rotation for the Houston Astros. Figueroa beat out Ryan Rowland-Smith, Rule 5 draft picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton, and rookie sensation Jordan Lyles. Even though this was a five person race, it seemed like Figueroa had to run one lap and everyone else was running two. As much as this was a race, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that Figueroa would be the fifth starter.
Nelson Figueroa pitched pretty well for the Astros down the stretch last year after being claimed off waivers from the Phillies. In eight relief appearances and ten starts he had an ERA of 3.22 and did just enough to secure the spot to start 2011. So far this spring he has gone 2-0 in 14 innings of work with an ERA of 3.86 and has seven strikeouts to five walks. Nelson Figueroa won’t overpower hitters with his stuff but provides a veteran presence at the back end of the rotation. He is not a pitcher who can go out and win games for you but rather the type of pitcher that won’t lose games for you.
Even though Figueroa won the spot, the pitcher who had the best spring was Jordan Lyles who went 1-2 with an ERA of 1.98. He only gave up three earned runs and had nine strikeouts and only two walks in his 13.2 innings of work. Many people were excited to see Lyles pitch at the major league level but they will need to wait a few more months but this was the smart move for both Lyles and the Astros organization. Lyles only had six starts at the Class AAA level with an ERA of 5.40 and could really benefit from spending some more time down there and gain more experience. Also by keeping Lyles off the Astros’ Opening Day roster this will allow the club to have an extra year before Lyles can become a free agent.
The remaining competitors in this race, Rodriguez, Pendleton and Rowland-Smith, will now turn their focus to competing for bullpen spots. Even though Rowland-Smith has not had a great spring training, he will most likely get one of those spots as a long reliever/ spot starter. This leaves the question what the Astros should do with the two Rule 5 draft picks. Rodriguez has pitched much better than Pendleton to this point but I think both have shown enough that they could be major league pitchers at some point in their careers.
Under Rule 5, the player needs to stay on the major league roster the entire season ort he previous team has the option to take him back $25,000. The Astros could try and work out trades that allows them to keep both players and send them down to the minors. I think Rodriguez has a pretty good shot to get a spot in the bullpen with Pendleton a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. If the Astros are not able to find a spot for these pitchers, I hope they are able to work out a trade that keeps them in the organization as I think they are two good young pitchers who are a year or less from making an impact.