I was guilty last season. I admit it. And once again heading into this season I was guilty. I have wrongfully been undervaluing Lucas Harrell, and it needs to stop. Instead of just automatically assuming that Bud Norris will and should be the Opening Day starter, Harrell deserves to be included in the discussion.
Harrell was acquired by the Astros organization from the White Sox in 2011 and proceeded to post a 1.72 ERA and a 5-2 record over nine starts in AAA. Last season for a team that did not have much go right for them, he was 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA while making 32 starts and pitching 193 innings. That is a pretty solid performance for someone essentially making their major league debut in not a good situation. The problem though is that Harrell is not necessarily an exciting pitcher to watch. He gets the job done and keeps his team in the game, which is what you want your starter to do, but Harrell does not strikeout a lot of batters (140 last season). For that reason he most likely projects as nothing more than a third starter on a good team, but obviously given the Astros situation, his stature in the rotation is elevated.
Norris on the other hand has been in the Astros organization since the beginning of his professional career in 2006. Norris has been in the major leagues since 2009 and historically has struck out about a batter an inning in his career. After seemingly making some progress with a 3.77 ERA in 2011, Norris took a step back and had a 4.65 ERA last season to go with his 7-13 record. Obviously not a great, performance, but Norris is still has the potential to be an ace, and at 28 it is still possible that he realizes said potential. More importantly, Norris is one of the longest tenured Astros and is a leader.
At this point, you could make the argument that Harrell is a better pitcher and the ground ball specialist has done better so far this spring. But there is still a lot of baseball left to be played until March 31st and Norris reportedly looked good in his simulated game on Wednesday. Based on what these two pitchers bring to the table, results aside, Norris is the better pitcher. Plus he has proved himself at the major league level for a few years now while Harrell only has one year of experience under his belt.
Both pitchers are going to be counted on for 30-35 starts each this season and they are guaranteed the first two spots in the rotation. The Opening Day starter, however, is about more than simply just who is the better pitcher or who had the better spring. Norris is one of the leaders on this team, and I think he should have the honor of taking the ball on opening night. What do you think? In your opinion, who should be the Opening Day starter?