Justin Verlander: The Astros’ ace starter was one of the best in the game last season (6.3 bWAR/6.8 fWAR), but Verlander will turn 36 during Spring Training. There is no denying the impact of Verlander on this roster since his arrival. Entering the last season of his current contract, it is not known where the star pitcher will end up for 2020 and beyond. While it is unknown if an extension with the Astros is possible, look for Verlander to draw plenty of interest once he hits free agency. There is no doubt that the former Tiger is key to Houston’s direction in 2019 and beyond.
Gerrit Cole: Like I noted with Verlander above, Cole was one of the best starters in baseball in 2018 (5.1 bWAR/6.3 fWAR). Cole is also entering the last season of his current contract in 2019 as he goes through his last round of arbitration. Much like Verlander, it is an unknown whether Cole is willing to sign another contract with the Astros. More likely than not, the Scott Boras client will enter free agency for the first time next fall as there should be no shortage of suitors. If he comes close to replicating, or even exceeds, his 2018 season, any team ought to pay top dollar to have Cole anchor their starting rotation heading into the next decade. If there are two players who hold the keys of the Astros’ immediate future, it has to be Cole and Verlander.
Collin McHugh: McHugh’s transition back to the starting rotation is one of more intriguing storylines as we approach Spring Training. Following a successful season exclusively as a reliever (1.99 ERA in 72 1/3 IP), the Astros will rely on the right-hander to be the club’s number three starter. McHugh definitely has the track record as he has posted a 3.70 ERA in 102 starts for the club, dating back to the 2014 season. You can understand why the Astros chose not to trade McHugh a year ago following the acquisition of Cole. Like Verlander and Cole, McHugh is a free agent following the 2019 season.
Forrest Whitley/Josh James/Framber Valdez: Based on the Astros’ depth chart, James would be the club’s number four starter followed by…Lance McCullers Jr.? It might be time for an update as McCullers will not pitch in 2019 following Tommy John surgery. Still look for the Astros to acquire one more starter in free agency or via trade before Spring Training, much like Cole last offseason. James is likely a option for the number five starter job, but don’t act surprised if Whitley, one of the top prospects in baseball, and Valdez to receive some looks as a starter in 2019 under the right circumstances. The Astros need at least one of the young arms to progress this year with the rotation possibly in flux next offseason.