The Houston Astros have 12 games left until the regular season ends.
While they clinched the playoffs by winning the AL West on Sunday, they still have a lot to play for. The Astros trail the Indians by 1.5 games for the best record in the American League. Whoever secures that title, will have home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Before the trade for Justin Verlander, the top two pitchers in the projected playoff rotation were Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. That was dependent on both being healthy, which Keuchel has proved he can do. McCullers has dealt with some arm fatigue recently, and the Astros have been vague about his status.
On this week’s Talking Stros on SportsTalk 790, we had a caller that confirmed what we both said off air. He said that he would like the top four starters in the playoff rotation to be Keuchel, Verlander, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton.
Wait, where is McCullers?
It seems like A.J. Hinch has hinted that Peacock could be a factor in the rotation in the playoffs. His stats show that he would be the perfect candidate for the third pitcher in the rotation. Morton offers some quality stuff as well, and McHugh pitched a strong five innings last night versus the White Sox.
This weekend, Hinch said that McCullers is okay, but okay is not good enough to pitch. They would wait until after McCullers throws his next bullpen. According to Jake Kaplan, McCullers will throw a bullpen tomorrow (today). Should things go well and he is better than ok, McCullers could start on Sunday according to Brian McTaggart.
Sunday’s starter is up in the air.
McTaggart also said that McHugh could also get that start. We are running out of time to stretch McCullers out for the playoffs. Since July 30th, McCullers has only made one start on September 6th. McCullers pitched 5 1/3 innings, including four no-hit innings. A few days later, McCullers was being skipped with arm fatigue. The rest is history.
I’m more interested in the future role for McCullers in the playoffs. The Astros are running out of time to stretch him out. Even if he pitches on Sunday, that would only give him one more start to stretch out before the season is over. After his long layoff last time, McCullers did bounce back with 5+ innings after rehab starts in the minors.
With the minor league season over, rehab starts are not an option. The team would also limit his pitch count, limiting him to 3-4 innings in both games. Could he be an option out of the bullpen in the playoffs? It would be a new role for him, but some scouts have thought he is more suited for the bullpen anyway.
A look at the pitchers.
It will be weird not to see McCullers on the playoff roster. The Astros have the depth to cover for him with the Verlander acquisition. With Mike Fiers unlikely to make the playoff roster, McCullers or McHugh could be the long reliever. The Astros are also likely to carry 13 hitters, which limits the spots for pitchers to twelve.
Keuchel, Verlander, Peacock, and Morton are the likely starters. Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, Will Harris, and Fransisco Liriano are locks for the bullpen. Luke Gregerson and Tyler Clippard are likely, but not guaranteed. James Hoyt could be a darkhorse candidate with his ability to get lefties out.
Would have to guess that McHugh will have some part of the playoff roster. He will give Hinch an earful if he isn’t. The extra starters could be paired with Peacock and Morton as semi-tandem starters. That takes away from other short stint relievers.
Once the Astros learn who they will match up within the first round, the analytics will tell the tale. Would love to see McCullers as part of the playoff roster with his passion. He’s fun to watch on the big stage, but his health will decide his fate. October is coming!
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***