Spring training is roughly one month away, and the 2016 Houston Astros roster is starting to take shape.
If the 2016 edition is anything like the 2015 Houston Astros, then a strong starting rotation will be vital. Out of all 30 major league rotations last year, Houston’s rotation finished eighth in WAR (16.0) and ninth in FIP (3.80). Definitely as solid rotation, and frankly one of the best in baseball last year. Any rotation that features a Cy Young-caliber starter in Dallas Keuchel, a very good Collin McHugh, a promising young hurler in Lance McCullers, and a better-than-advertised Mike Fiers will almost assuredly be at least above average, if not better.
So how does that lead into 2016? Well, depends on who you ask to be honest. First, let’s take a look at ESPN’s Buster Olney’s starting rotation rankings that came just recently (requires an ESPN Insider subscription). The Astros surprisingly (or not) come in twelfth on the list, behind the likes of the Mets, Indians, Cardinals, Cubs, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers, Pirates, Nationals, Diamondbacks, Rays, and Red Sox.
Most of the rotations listed before the Astros isn’t all that surprising. With the team trading off multiple near-Major League ready pitchers, the pitching depth in the minors is somewhat thinned out. And it is interesting to note that Fangraphs Steamers projections have the Keuchel and McHugh combination regressing in 2016; the frontline duo is projected to go from a combined WAR of 10.0 in 2015 to 7.5 this year. But like all projections, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, this kind of projection methods is tend to be informed by regression.
However, the biggest knock on the rotation is the lack of dependable number five starter. Scott Feldman is the de facto favorite for the final starting job. But despite Feldman’s track record of being a steady veteran arm in the past, he is coming off an injury-plagued season in 2015. And there is no telling how he may rebound even though he is projected by Fangraphs to finish with a 4.49 FIP and 1.2 WAR next season. Of course, the team could also sign another stopgap veteran like Jeff Luhnow did last year with Roberto Hernandez. Ian Kennedy and Yovani Gallardo are two names being floated around, but both require draft pick compensation so that may complicate any realistic possibility of the Astros being serious suitors for the two free agents.
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There is also the (minor) concern of a sophomore slump for McCullers, which is possible given that opposing teams will now have a full offseason to examine thoroughly how he operates on the mound. The same can be said for Fiers as all of the other divisional rivals will now have more info on him than they did before. However, each project to provide the Astros with a combined 4.6 WAR, which isn’t bad. In fact, McCullers is projected to tie McHugh in 2016 WAR of 2.7, so it seems that at least one projection system predicts the 22-year old to at least come close to matching his 2015 level of production.
When it is all said and done, the Astros rotation will more than likely be the Astros strongest area of the roster. Keuchel appears to be one of the American League’s top pitchers for the foreseeable future, and the rest of the rotation has plenty of promise to be one of the best in baseball. McHugh, McCullers, and Fiers make for an unspectacular, but yet reliable, the heart of the rotation.
Besides the fifth and final rotation spot, there isn’t much to not like about the Astros starters. Yes, I may be quite bullish by saying that, but this isn’t the 2011-14 Astros we are talking about. This is the up and possibly already arrived Astros of 2016.
**Statistics are provided by Fangraphs**