The Houston Astros had the game’s best rotation in 2018, but change is coming.
As great as the Astros‘ starting five was for most of the 2018 season, the group could look significantly different on Opening Day next year. Top dogs Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will return, but uncertainty looms for the rest of the rotation.
Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are entering free agency. Rumors and questions persist regarding the health of Lance McCullers Jr. There’s a possibility that none of those three will pitch for the Astros next season.
To Spend or Not to Spend
Keuchel has been a key cog in the Astros’ run of success the last few seasons. He has a Cy Young Award, three Gold Gloves and two All-Star selections on his resume. With Scott Boras as his agent, the 30-year-old could command north of $100 million, depending on how the market plays out.
I wrote previously that the Astros should let Keuchel leave as a free agent, and I still believe that. The Astros have deeper pockets than they used to, but they can’t be handing out nine-figure deals like candy on Halloween. I’d rather see them spend that money on an extension for Cole and take the draft pick compensation when Keuchel declines a qualifying offer and signs elsewhere.
Morton is also in line for a nice payday, as he greatly outperformed his modest salary the last two seasons. He’ll be 35 next season and may not continue to play beyond a couple more years, so he wouldn’t require a lengthy commitment. He could be a candidate to accept a qualifying offer, should the Astros extend it.
If Morton accepts, I would be happy to have him for one year at $17.9 million. Otherwise the Astros should look to sign him to a deal of perhaps two years, or one year plus an option. He’s a known quantity who wants to be in Houston, and he’ll make a great No. 3 starter at a relatively reasonable price.
Much of the team’s offseason plans for the rotation will depend on McCullers’ health. While it’s been rumored that he may need Tommy John surgery, no such confirmations have been made. If McCullers does indeed go under the knife for a major operation, the Astros will have two rotation spots to fill if they re-sign Morton and Keuchel leaves.
Former starters Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock could certainly make a return to the rotation. Both were strong out of the bullpen in 2018, however, so the team might want to keep them there. Youngsters Josh James and Framber Valdez impressed, and top prospect Forrest Whitley could make his debut sometime next season.
If McCullers is going to miss all or part of next season, the Astros should probably bring in a veteran from outside the organization, either via trade or free agency. We’ve seen how this staff fixed Cole’s issues, resurrected Morton’s career and turned McHugh into a 19-game winner. There’s no reason to think they can’t find someone whose spin rate has room for improvement and who can soak up innings every five days.
As good as James was in 2018, he’s probably best suited for the bullpen at this point. Valdez could probably use more seasoning in the minors, and Whitley isn’t ready yet. The Astros could transition McHugh back to the rotation, bring back Morton and add one more veteran to round out the starting five. Replacing McHugh with James in the bullpen still gives them great depth.
However it shakes out, there could be some new faces taking the mound for the Astros next year. But with Verlander and Cole at the top and plenty of available options, they should still field one of the game’s best rotations in 2019.