Astros: Lance McCullers open to a bullpen role for the playoffs

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lance McCullers Jr.
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lance McCullers Jr. /

Will Lance McCullers become an asset in the Astros bullpen?

With Lance McCullers last two starts, it had been a story of great success early but came unglued later. When McCullers returned to the Astros rotation on September 6th, he did so pitching four no-hit innings. It looked like he was going to start pitching as he did earlier in the season.

Instead, he gave up three runs in the fifth and six innings and was pulled after 5 1/3 innings. Despite his great start, he was shut down for a few weeks with dead arm symptoms. He finally made another start on September 24 after an extended period of inactivity.

That’s was the last home game of the year, and McCullers was competing for a spot in the rotation. The pressure was on for him to pitch well because Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton were earning a role in the playoff rotation. For the first two innings, he looked great despite allowing a double each inning. However, it was a sign of what was to come.

McCullers versus the Red Sox.

McCullers gave up one run in the third inning, and he and two other pitchers gave up three more in the fourth inning. Last night was a little of the same, McCullers looked good early. Like the previous game, the damage against McCullers was done in the fourth and fifth innings. No matter the outcome, it has to be noted that McCullers looked dominant for at least three innings in his last three starts.

Translation, he most likely won’t be a starter in the playoffs for the Astros in 2017. Does that mean he won’t be on the playoff roster at all? This sounds like a situation that happened in Boston this year with David Price. After coming back from an injury, they didn’t have room in the rotation, so he was moved to the bullpen.

Looking at Price’s transformation.

Like McCullers, Price didn’t have a bad season with a 6-3 record with a 3.38 ERA. His last start on July 22 ended with him having a 3.82 ERA. When he returned on September 17, he pitched the final two innings as a reliever. He has pitched a total of five times out of the bullpen not allowing any runs in 8 2/3 innings with 13 strikeouts.

Price has adjusted to the new role, but with his contract, he will likely return to the rotation in 2018. In the final few weeks, before the season ended, the Red Sox decided that there was not enough time left to stretch him out. He has now become a weapon out of the bullpen that could hurt the Astros.

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Should he have been moved earlier to the bullpen?

The Astros took the other route when McCullers returned to action on September 24th. They tried to stretch him out. Like Price, he will most likely return to the rotation in 2018. McCullers was a first-time All-Star, but his second half has brought his numbers down to earth. He has a 7-4 record with a 4.25 ERA while striking out a career-high 132 batters in 118 innings.

Jeremy Booth, the founder of Program 15 and The Future Star Series, has always questioned how the Astros used McCullers. Booth is a regular contributor to Talking Stros on SportsTalk 790 and has always felt that McCullers should be a closer, not a starter. If Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton become the third and fourth starters in the playoffs, McCullers would have to give the bullpen a shot.

It takes time for the transformation.

As good as McCullers could be as a reliever, I want to caution you how long it took Francisco Liriano to adjust to being a reliever. If this were the Astros plan, you would have thought that they would have brought him in as a reliever at some point as the Red Sox did with Price.

Then again, look how easily Joe Musgrove adjusted to the reliever role after struggling as a starter. I think that Houston really wanted him to be a starter in the playoffs with his stuff, but he didn’t respond like they liked.

Next: Projecting the Astros ALDS roster

McCullers told reporters that he is open to moving to the bullpen for the playoffs. McCullers said that he felt better than he has in a while. If he could come in and perform like Musgrove did as he transformed into a reliever, he could be a weapon as well. In order to be successful, McCullers must command the fastball. The future is still bright for him but his role will change for the playoffs.

***Stats from Baseball-Reference***