The Houston Astros are likely to seek upgrades in the rotation, and here we examine internal and external options they could explore.
The Houston Astros have been known for their elite starting pitchers the last few years with Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. Unfortunately, none will be playing for the Astros in 2021. Cole moved on to New York, Keuchel is in Chicago and Verlander is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The Astros are in a good place after this season, but they could still use an additional arm or two in 2021. Here are different scenarios that the Astros could pursue to further strengthen their rotation.
Projected rotation based on active roster:
Valdez was undoubtedly the pitching MVP for Houston in 2020. The 26-year-old finally found himself after two season between the minors and majors. In the regular season, Valdez had an ERA of 3.57. Valdez progressed throughout the year and continually dropped his ERA. Valdez is in company to become the ace next year for Houston, and as a left-handed pitcher, offers an ideal compliment to a right-handed heavy rotation.
Lance McCullers Jr.
“Snap Dragon 1” had an up-and-down 2020 after coming back from Tommy John surgery. Entering the final year of his contract, McCullers has something to prove. As an electric starter known for his curveball, he struggled to stay on track in 2020. While posting a 3.93 ERA, McCullers was still having trouble getting through at-bats. His walk rate increases dramatically if he gets behind early in counts. He is only 27 years old and enters a pivotal year in which he will be looking to improve his free agent status.
Greinke is aging and his velocity is dropping, but he is still able to be effective. He posted a 4.03 ERA after starting the season strong. He is locked into the rotation in 2021, but comes off the books after the season. He will be 38 by then, and it could very well be his last season in Houston.
Urquidy proved a lot in his rookie campaign in 2019, but injuries kept him out for most of the regular season in 2020. In 5 games, he had a 2.73 ERA and showed the same strikeout rate that he had in 2019. He was a solid piggy back/starting pitcher in the postseason and this might be how we see him used in 2021. Urquidy and Javier are the two youngest pitchers in the rotation and both could fall into the bullpen as long relievers in 2021. Urquidy has more experience and has proven more reliable as a starter, so I have him seeing more time as a starter in 2020 than Javier.
Javier showed a lot of flexibility moving from a starting role to bullpen work. As a finalist for AL Rookie of the Year, Javier posted a 3.48 ERA through 12 games. As the youngest member of the rotation, Javier pitched like a veteran. Getting past the first inning has seem to be a struggle in recent games, but his power and movement led to 54 strikeouts in his rookie campaign. Javier could be a 6th starter if needed or a long reliever depending on if the Astros sign or trade for another starter.
The Astros have a solid starting five set in the rotation: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Zach Greinke, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Valdez, but they lack depth. With Greinke being the only pitcher in his 30s, we could see the Astros go shopping for a cheap, veteran arm, or rely on an arm in the minor leagues.
Whitley is name that every fan should know by now. The former first round pick has not seen the major leagues and it might be a smart move to not bring him up in 2021. He missed time after serving a suspension. The Astros are expected to be competitive in the AL West and appear likely to make the playoffs once again. He is fighting an uphill battle to making the team in 2021.
Abreu has shown he can be a key piece to the rotation. He has appeared in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons and in 11 career games, the right-hander posted a 1.50 ERA, but he is in a similar position to Whitley in that he could be a future ace. But he might not be able to pitch deep into games quite yet and could be a long reliever in 2021.
Garcia could be a starter in 2021 depending how the offseason plays out. In a changing game, Garcia adds value as an “opener” candidate next season for an analytical team like Houston, but his pitch rate will sky rocket as the game progresses and will likely not get deep into games. Garcia is likely to see most of his work out of the bullpen next year.
The Astros have a small amount of wiggle room in their payroll in 2021, but depending on how they restructure the outfield with contracts, there may not be much remaining to add a pitcher. There are three cheap, notable pitchers out on the market, and with the help of Strom, we could see bounce back season from two of them.
The former Tampa Bay Ray is currently a free agent, and Houston could become his home again. The aging right-hander was more or less average in 2020 while posting an ERA of 4.74 in nine games. Morton has shown a great deal of progression, and it happened in the postseason. In a shortened season, it took Morton time to ramp up. In two starts in the ALCS, Morton went 10.2 innings combined and a 0.00 ERA. At 36 years old, Morton has ties to Houston and a veteran that the rotation could use on a cheaper short-term contract.
Archer is another former Ray, but his latest stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates wasn’t good. At 30 years old and having missed all of 2020 after undergoing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Archer could make his way to Houston on a cheap deal. In 2019, Archer posted a 5.19 ERA and hasn’t been effective in two years, but could be a cheap candidate for pitching coach Brent Strom to work with.
Hamels is a free agent and only two years removed from one of his best seasons. He battled injuries in 2020 and made only one start for the Braves. As a left-handed pitcher, he presents another left-handed option for the rotation. At 36, the pitch rate and movement is this still there, but velocity is not what it once was. Hamels could become a left-handed Greinke in the rotation.
I don’t see any prospects making their way to the starting rotation next season, but I do envision the Astros going after an extra arm. My projected rotation is McCullers Jr., Valdez, Greinke, Archer/Morton, and Urquidy along with Javier as a 6th starter/long reliever. The issue with Hamels is that he is on the brink of retirement and signing him could be a high risk/medium reward depending on the money they would offer him.