Astros: What happens if Lance McCullers leaves after 2021?

Oct 17, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) throws against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning in game seven of the 2020 ALCS at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) throws against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning in game seven of the 2020 ALCS at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /
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What if Lance McCullers leaves the Houston Astros after the 2021 season?

I recently looked into what the Astros might do if Carlos Correa were to leave Houston following this season. Of course the other big upcoming free agent is Lance McCullers, who also occupies an important place on the team and has been outspoken in his desire to remain here beyond 2021. But will the team re-sign him?

McCullers was one of the big prospect arrivals in 2015 that helped catapult the Astros to an early playoff appearance that year. He’s worked to a 3.70 ERA in five seasons with solid peripherals and has a career 3.28 ERA in the postseason, and we all remember his performance against the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. His talent is undeniable.

He’s also been injury prone, having never made more than 22 starts in a single season and also missing the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. So while he’s been a good pitcher when healthy, that injury history also makes it tough to put an accurate value on him. This may be what gives GM James Click pause — how do you value a guy whose ceiling is so high but there’s so much risk involved?

That’s why McCullers’ 2021 season is going to be vital. If he stays healthy and pitches well, he sets himself up for a big payday. If he struggles or spends time on the Injured List, his earning potential takes a big hit. The Astros may want to wait and see how the season goes before deciding whether to commit to him, but of course that could mean another team outbids them.

Plan B?

If McCullers were to depart, the Astros would be in something of a scary position. Zack Greinke is also a free agent this coming winter, as is Justin Verlander. The team’s top three remaining starters would be Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier, but who knows who’d be in line behind them?

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We’ll know more by how this season goes, but starting pitching depth is already suspect. They have candidates — Forrest Whitley, Bryan Abreu and Luis Garcia, for example — but none of them are sure things at this point. Maybe another prospect like Tyler Ivey will step up, but the bottom line is the Astros will be painfully thin.

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With the contracts of Greinke and Verlander off the books, the team will have money to spend. They could always bring either of those two back, or they could go shopping in free agency. The likes of Zach Davies, Dylan Bundy, Lance Lynn, Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard could be available, so they’ll have options.

The trade route is also a possibility as well, though the team’s minor league system is generally rated among the worst in the game. We also don’t know how things will look next winter with respect to the CBA expiring, so that could add a whole different element to the mix. There’s just a lot of uncertainty beyond this season.

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The Astros don’t have a wealth of pitching depth, so unless several players step up and proclaim themselves ready for the big league rotation, Click will most likely have to spend some money next winter for the team to remain competitive. Whether any of that money will go to McCullers remains to be seen.

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