The biggest questions surrounding the Astros and their ability to compete now is their lack of an ace in the starting rotation. The offense seems to be competitive and the bullpen has been upgraded substantially. It’s just the starting pitching that has been left unimproved by any offseason moves.
It is possible that Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh can continue their high level of performance, but that might be asking a lot. They were both awesome last year, posting sub 3.00 E.R.A.s and winning double-digit games for a bad club. Scott Feldman is the veteran that you seem to be able to rely on. That hopefully makes a solid trio for Houston. Still, it would have been nice to see Houston make a run after Max Scherzer in free agency (probably a year or two too early for that kind of spending) or to offer some of the budding talent in the Astros farm system for Cole Hamels. For all we know, GM Jeff Luhnow made a play for one or both of those aces. Option C is perhaps more likely at this point for the Astros.
Houston has a number of excellent young pitching prospects that may be on the cusp of making an impact at the big league level. Everyone knows about Mark Appel. The first overall pick in the 2013 draft was able to reach double-A Corpus Christi in 2014 and may just be a few weeks of service time away from joining the big league club.
One name you may not have known is Asher Wojciechowski. He has worked his way through the Astros farm system after being acquired from Toronto in 2012. At the age of 26, “Wojo” boasts college, international, and professional experience. After working through arm issues, Houston may actually get to see what Wojo has to offer at the major league level, either as a long reliever or as a starter.
Other notable arms down on the farm include Vincent Velasquez, Josh Hader, Lance McCullers, and Michael Feliz. Of the four, only Hader saw double-A time in 2014. Still, the group is highly talented and should all start the season at Corpus. Let’s talk a little about each of them so you know who they are for 2015 and 2016.
Vincent Velasquez is a 22 year-old right-hander who dominates when he’s healthy. He has 309 strikeouts in just 263 innings pitched in the minors. His heater appears to get him out of a lot of tough situations. However, he has hasn’t had to challenge anyone above high-A ball. Health issues have slowed the progress of this stud, so when the Astros heard that he had a lat strain in the beginning days of spring training, I’m sure it was a big disappointment
Lance McCullers Jr. was part of the 2012 draft that also netted Carlos Correa and Rio Ruiz (now in the Atlanta system after the Gattis trade). Still just 21 years-old, this fireballer seems to have been on the prospects list forever. The arm is certainly live. The question with McCullers has always been control. He posted a 5.47 E.R.A. in the hitter-friendly California league. The Astros are hopeful that a third pitch will emerge to be as strong as his fastball and curveball. If not, he could be destined for work out of the pen. We probably will not see him prior to 2016.
Michael Feliz is another 21 year-old, that I’m assuming will be moving from high-A to double-A in 2015. Another hard-throwing righty, like McCullers, Feliz has shown better control in his professional career. Though he has seen parts of five years of professional ball, Feliz is still very raw and the Astros will hope to see him take great strides in the coming year.
Finally, there is Josh Hader. With an excellent fastball and strong changeup, Hader was able to put up a 9-2 record, with a 2.70 E.R.A. and 112 Ks in 102 innings at Lancaster last year before advancing on to Corpus Christi late in the season. Yes, he got to double-A in 2014, but he still is only 20 and is expected to fill out his frame a little more before being big-league ready. However, the lefty could be the most impressive arm of the group when it is all said and done.
So, other than Appel, how are these guys able to impact the 2015 and 2016 Astros? The same way that Mike Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz have. They may make for great trade pieces for more major-league ready players. Remember that a prospect is just a prospect until they are successful in the bigs, and pitchers health and success are incredibly hard to predict. It would not surprise me to see two of the younger arms in a package to acquire a front of the line starter in 2015.
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