Ten of the 28 pitchers in Astros camp made at least five big league starts in 2011. An eleventh, Lucas Harrell, started two games for the Astros last season. That means Brad Mills and Doug Brocail will be quite busy over the next few weeks trying to determine roles for each of these eleven moundsmen.
Four-fifths of the rotation that Mills used at the outset of 2011 remains intact. So that should simplify things a bit, right? Not necessarily. Astros starters had a rough go of it in 2011, compiling a league worst record of 35-71. Houston starters ranked 15th in the N.L. in homeruns allowed (1.20 per 9 innings) and 14th in both walks (3.31 per 9 innings) and ERA (4.52). Is that reason enough to overhaul the rotation? I would certainly think so. But apparently that won’t be the case.
Wandy Rodriguez had the best year among Astros starters and will probably get the opening day nod. The veteran lefty was 11-11 with a 3.49 ERA and seems to have found the consistency that eluded him earlier in his career. Wandy has held hitters to a batting average somewhere in the 250’s for five consecutive seasons. If he can find a way to lower his walk rate while maintaining the same average against numbers, Wandy could become one of the top pitchers in the game. Of course, that will be easier said than done. But Rodriguez has shown continued growth and the Astros will be counting on him to stay on an upward path.
Last year’s Opening Day starter Brett Myersfollowed up a career year in 2010 with what can only be described as a disappointing 2011. But Myers did finish strong, winning four of five September starts and steadily lowering his ERA over the last two months of the season. Myers has lowered his walk rate in each of the last four seasons, reaching a career best of 2.4 per 9 innings last year. At age 31 Myers should still have a few good years left and should start the season as the Astros number two starter.
Number three starter Bud Norris is the Astros pitcher most likely to have a breakout season in 2012. Despite a 6-11 record in 2011 Norris had a respectable 3.77 ERA and struck out 8.6 batters per 9 innings. Norris added a changeup to his repertoire and became more effective as he gained confidence in the pitch. Norris should also reach the 500 career innings mark this year, which seems to be a coming-of-age point for many big league pitchers.
J.A. Happ was another big disappointment for Houston last season. He was better after returning from a mid-season demotion to AAA, but his overall numbers were ugly. The big lefty will need to reestablish himself this spring or risk losing his spot in the rotation to one of the many youngsters in camp.
Livan Hernandez has declared himself the number five starter and Jeff Luhnow has also hinted as such. The 16-year veteran has never been on the disabled list and threw more innings in the decade of the 2000’s than any big league pitcher. Hernandez could serve as a placeholder while Jordan Lyles and Kyle Weiland sharpen their skills in the minors.
Zach Duke is another veteran that was recently signed to a minor league deal. The lefty has been a starter for his entire career, but Brad Mills said today that Duke will be auditioning for a spot in the bullpen. Right-hander Henry Sosa made ten starts for Houston last season and could be a possible option to replace Happ if his struggles persist. Sosa, 26, has yet to develop his off-speed pitches. For that reason, I believe he is better suited for the bullpen.
Aneury Rodriguez made eight starts for the Astros last season in addition to working out of the bullpen. As a Rule 5 pick the Astros were forced to keep Aneury on the big league roster all season to avoid losing him. This season Rodriguez will have minor league options and should spend plenty of time at AAA Oklahoma City. Rodriguez has already made 131 starts in the minor leagues at the tender young age of 24. Rodriguez relied heavily on his fastball and slider last season and could use some time with Burt Hooton to develop his off-speed pitches. Jeff Luhnow has stated that both Aneury and Paul Clemenswill continue to be developed as starting pitchers. Clemens is also in big league camp and will probably begin the season in AA.
The eleventh pitcher to consider for the rotation, Lucas Harrell, is one of my favorites. The 26 year-old righty out of Springfield Missouri has made 141 starts in seven minor league seasons. Harrell was claimed off waivers from the White Sox last July and pitched in six games for the Astros down the stretch. Harrell has yet to duplicate his minor league success in the bigs but has a full arsenal of pitches, including a 92 mph fastball that features excellent movement. He projects as a starter in the long run but I would expect him to begin the season in the Astros bullpen. I think Harrell has lots of upside and is ready to contribute immediately. So pencil in Harrell for the bullpen right now. Harrell took a ground ball off his right forearm today during pitcher’s fielding practice but say’s he’s okay. I will cover the rest of the relievers in part three of the report- coming soon.