Is Astros rotation good enough to be taken seriously?

Feb 19, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel (left) talks with Mike Fiers (center) and pitcher Collin McHugh (31) during the workout at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 19, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel (left) talks with Mike Fiers (center) and pitcher Collin McHugh (31) during the workout at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

Do the Astros have enough quality starting pitchers to be successful in 2017?

While I was watching MLB Network the day before Thanksgiving, they talked about the Astros. Dan Plesac had the last word on the discussion.  Plesac said, “doesn’t matter how many bats they add, I can’t take the Astros seriously until they pitch better.” It appears that this is a notion that many experts and fans agree upon. Do they need to add a top of the rotation pitcher?

If you were to ask Jeff Luhnow now, he might say that the rotation is good enough. Behind the offensive powerhouse they are building, it will be okay if they are not all Cy Youngs’. They believe in Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers as the number one or two pitchers. Collin McHugh is good enough to be the third best pitcher, but Luhnow has hinted that Charlie Morton will get that gig.

The fifth pitcher will be a battle between the emerging Joseph Musgrove and the veteran Mike Fiers. It would seem that the rotation is set with Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz trying to get their feet in the door. Not to mention David Paulino, Francis Martes, or Brady Rodgers who will start at Triple-A. The Astros are swarming with options for the starting rotation, so why trade away the future?

A look back at the Stros’ rotation in 2016.

Let’s take a look at what the Astros rotation did in 2016. The rotation was under .500 for the season, going 57-59 with a 4.37 ERA. Doing the math, the starters averaged about 5 2/3 innings per game. They averaged 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. There were only two complete games in 2016, with one of them being a shutout. McCullers didn’t care much about Plesac’s statement with his Tweet below.

Joel Sherman pointed out how similar the Astros and Cubs are at this moment, with the difference being in the rotation. Sherman believes the Stros should pursue a Chris Archer type of pitcher to help reach the World Series in 2017. The two teams were built very similarly, with Jeff Luhnow making his big moves for 2017.

Let’s take a look at the Cubs stats from 2016. The starters were over .500, with an 81-39 record. Their ERA was 2.96, and they averaged six-plus innings per start. The Cubs starting rotation struck out 8.4 batters per nine innings. You can’t say that the Cubs pitched significantly deeper into ball games from that info. But they had 100 quality starts vs. the Astros 77 quality starts. Does the extra 23 quality starts matter? Look at how many more wins the Cubs had than the Astros.

In some sense, the Stros have a deeper rotation at the moment. The difference is that their top three pitchers had a better 2016 season. Let’s compare the pitching staffs.

The Top Three

Keuchel (9-12, 4.55 ERA, 0.5 WAR) vs. Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10 ERA, 3.4 WAR)

McCullers (6-5, 3.22 ERA, 1.6 WAR) vs. Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, 5.3 WAR)

McHugh (13-10, 4.34 ERA, 1.2 WAR) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA, 5.0 WAR)

While Keuchel did win the AL Cy Young in 2015, the workload could have affected his performance in 2016. The expectations were sky-high entering the 2016 season. While he had a down year, the Astros are expecting a bounce back season for Keuchel. They are also expecting a healthy season for McCullers.

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Looking at the stats above, the Astros top three have performed better in the past. They did not pitch well in 2016. It’s almost unfair to compare the two staffs, the Cubs top three could all be number ones on many teams. The Cubs top three WAR was 13.7, compared to the Astros 3.3 WAR. The Astros offense almost made the playoffs without two of the top three pitchers.

If the Cubs are the team to model, we need to add a Lester equivalent pitcher to pair with Keuchel and McCullers. Nothing against McHugh, but he would be better as the John Lackey comparable fourth pitcher. I have faith in Keuchel and McCullers having strong 2017 seasons. However, they would be more playoff ready with a Lester or Corey Kluber type ace. There is no one of that caliber on the free agent market this offseason, must look at the trade market.

Any ‘aces’ available?

The two names that keep coming up are Chris Archer and Chris Sale. Archer had a down season in 2016 but is still young and full of potential. Sale would have the most immediate impact and is a left-handed ace to match up with Keuchel. The Astros may be able to pound their way into the playoffs, but they need shutdown pitchers to win the World Series.

Next: Is A.J. Reed on the trading block for an ace?

If the Astros we able to sign another hitter via free agency, this could make the front office more likely to make a move for an ace. Adding a top of the rotation starting pitcher would take them from favorites in the AL West to favorites in the AL. The Rangers have their ace in Cole Hamels it wouldn’t hurt to add one more to pitch between Keuchel and McCullers. Go for it Jeff…

***Stats from Baseball-Reference and ESPN Team Stats***