The Houston Astros face a lot of uncertainty in the rotation next season. *This* would be my ideal starting five on Opening Day.
In 2020, the starting rotation for the Astros lacked depth after the losses of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. Nonetheless, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier stepped up and both received votes in the Cy Young and American League Rookie of the Year.
The issue as the 2021 season nears, however, is the lack of depth and experience. Verlander will most likely not pitch in the regular season in ’21, according to general manager James Click, but the organization is hopeful to see him in October if Houston advances. One big name I brought up last month was the return of Charlie Morton, but he signed with the Atlanta Braves, which means my two other projected free agent targets, Chris Archer and Cole Hamels, are still up for grabs. With McCullers, Greinke, and Verlander all hitting free agency after the ’21 season, it is time for the Astros to evaluate the future of the starting rotation. Here is what I see as the ideal rotation for the 2021 Houston Astros:
1. Framber Valdez, L
In his first full season as a starter, Valdez was arguably the ace of the rotation, but his experience lacks compared to Greinke and McCullers. The left-hander finished 2020 with an ERA of 3.57, which ranked second among starters. Valdez is currently the only left-handed arm on staff which adds much needed value and versatility to a right-handed heavy rotation. He finished 11th in Cy Young voting which isn’t spectacular, but it shows how voters are respecting his craft. Valdez will be 27 years old next season and is now seen as a reliable ace to a changing rotation.
2. Lance McCullers Jr., R
McCullers had to shake some rust off in 2020 after Tommy John sidelined him in 2019. The former All-Star struggled with command and first pitch strikes and didn’t seem like his energetic, fun-loving-self last season, and in part, it had to do with his production. With a 3.93 ERA, McCullers had issues with his pitch count when the batting order would come back up for a second time. At 27 years old, McCullers has much to prove in his last year under contract with Houston, and needs to show he can perform closer to his 2017-18 level.
3. Zack Greinke, R
Greinke was in a funk in the backend of the ’20 season, and as he has gotten into his upper 30s, his velocity is dropping. Movement and command have been his best friends in recent years as he has strayed away from a power fastball. Greinke will be 38 after the 2021 season, and while this is his last season under contract, it is time to evaluate his future status as an Astro. Greinke adds experience and diligence to a young, scrappy rotation, but unlike last season, I do not see him being a trade piece come August.
4. Jose Urquidy, R
Urquidy missed much of the 2020 season after a significant rookie campaign. Injuries halted the progression of the 25-year-old, but he did not seem to be fazed when he made his return late into the season. Through five starts, Urquidy posted a 2.73 ERA while fanning 17 batters through 29.2 innings. His strikeout rate dropped from the ’19 season, but with such a small sample size, it is hard to evaluate a real difference. Urquidy seems to be the better fit over Cristian Javier in this spot due to the versatility that he provides.
5. Sign Chris Archer, R
This one might seem a little out of nowhere, but the Astros need another arm, and the best candidate is former Tampa Bay Ray’s ace, Chris Archer. The 32-year-old right-hander is 3 seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance, but injuries plagued his last 2 seasons in Pittsburgh. This is where Brent Strom comes in the picture. As one of the best pitching coaches in the league, Strom can work to bring back the career for Archer. The addition to Archer is that the Astros can bring him in on a low-risk deal, because he might have to sign a minor league deal or a contract under $3 million a year and add an incentive bonus. Archer has never been a pitcher with a low ERA, but he likes to strike batters out which is what the Astros will need in the backend of their rotation.
Cristian Javier, R
While finishing third in AL ROY voting in 2020, Javier might be best suited as a long reliever/set-up man for the ’21 season. The young right-hander showed great lengths with his time out of the pen in the postseason, but the Astros did not often rely on him in big situations. With an evolving game, Javier could also be used in an opener role as the Astros will hit bumps down the round with injuries and rotational movement. He will see time in the starting role, but it is always valuable to add arms.