As the Astros most likely know following the 2017 season, you can never have enough starting pitchers.
There is a lot to like about the Astros. Literally, a lot. The young core. A good mixture of youth along with experience.
Like most teams though, the starting rotation perpetually appears to be an area that could improve. At least improve slightly.
The question is whether the Astros actually need to upgrade the rotation?
In a not-so-straight forward answer, yes and no.
The Astros’ 2017 rotation finished sixth in total WAR – 15.2 – amongst all major league units. Only the Indians, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Red Sox and Dodgers were ranked higher in this metric. Houston’s rotation also had the sixth-best ERA – 4.03 – and FIP – 3.95 – in the majors.
Clearly, the rotation was a strength throughout the season. The metrics, to a certain degree, back up this statement. Were they the best? Nope. Nevertheless, this was a good starting rotation. You can, in theory, use this rotation again next season and remain in relatively solid shape. No need to make any rash decisions.
At the same time, this doesn’t mean there weren’t warts. There is much more to a starting rotation than the final numbers. Its long-term health and viability have to be considered as well.
If the Astros’ rotation had one major flaw, it had to be the health and occasional ineffectiveness of its starters.
For example, Mike Fiers led all Houston starters in innings pitched with 152.1 innings. To put into context, Fiers didn’t even make the postseason roster in any of the three rounds. He also allowed many, many home runs. I’m not sure how he or the Astros’ outfielders don’t have whiplash right now. Charlie Morton finished in second place with 146.2 innings pitched, which is only one more inning than Dallas Keuchel’s total in 2017. Lance McCullers only threw 118.2 innings. Brad Peacock finished with 111.2 innings pitched. Of course, Justin Verlander would’ve been far and away the lead pitcher in terms of innings as he finished the season with 206. But only 34 of those regular season innings came as an Astro.
Still, it is rather troubling that Houston didn’t have a consistent starter for most of the season. Injuries (see: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton) were an issue during the summer. Ineffectiveness (see: Fiers and home runs allowed) was also a problem. Peacock was originally meant to be a bullpen arm. But due to these issues, he was forced into the rotation. Don’t get me wrong as I think Peacock performed admirably once you consider the factors in play. But it doesn’t speak well when your most consistent starter this season was a pitcher who started the season in the bullpen. The second half of the season was particularly worrisome as Keuchel and McCullers dealt with ineffectiveness following their returns from the disabled list. Acquiring Verlander, in obviously many ways, saved the Astros’ ultimate postseason goal.
Surprisingly, the Astros finished tenth in total innings pitched by their various eleven starters with 899.2 innings. However, teams are not riding their starting pitchers as much as they used to. Ten years ago in the 2007 season, 899.2 innings would’ve placed the Astros in 26th out of all thirty major league teams. Times have changed. Hint: bullpen usage.
This long-winded explanation now leads us to the fun part of the topic. Or not so fun. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your reading preference. But I can for sure follow mine.
So, the Astros may be wise to sign another starting pitcher.
While Verlander and Keuchel form a terrific one-two punch, you have to fill in the last three spots. McCullers, health permitting, will likely claim the third or fourth starter role. Charlie Morton will also be in the rotation as the third or fourth starter. Once again, health permitting. The last spot if the 2018 season started today would be decided amongst Fiers, Peacock, Francis Martes, Collin McHugh and Joe Musgrove. In terms of fifth starter quality, you can’t complain.
Alas, the health of at least three-fifths of the starting rotation is rather worrisome. And it’s better to have enough pitching than too little. Look at the Dodgers as an example. While they have seven-to-ten starters under contract, they know it’s unrealistic to expect the five starters on Opening Day to make it through the season. I wouldn’t mind the Astros employ a similar approach. For example, I wouldn’t mind the front office making a play for Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb.
They would be pricey, however, the Astros would pair a clearly above-average rotation with a great lineup and solid bullpen. The influx of revenue from the postseason will help, but it may not matter in terms of long-term commitments. While it won’t likely happen with future payroll commitments to be considered down the road, it would difficult to turn down the possibility of an even better starting rotation.
**Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs**