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Astros Should Keep 5-Man Rotation When McCullers Returns

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At this point in the season, the Astros should not stray from their current setup of a 5-man rotation when Lance McCullers’ rehab process is complete.

The Houston Astros have an impending dilemma on their hands. Starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.‘s return from a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined since late 2021 is finally on the horizon. He has made 4 rehab starts between AA and AAA, and while he owns an ERA of 6.75 between those starts, 4 outings are plenty of time in the minors for someone who finished top-10 in AL Cy Young voting a season ago. His injury has kept him from the majors for almost a full calendar year, but McCullers wants the next time he takes the mound to be in a major league game.

Should he have to make another rehab start, it will only delay the inevitable. If this situation continues to progress as it is, he will be on the MLB roster in a couple of weeks at most. The Astros currently have a traditional 5-man rotation of Verlander-Valdez-Garcia-Javier-Urquidy, and before Jake Odorizzi was traded to the Braves, they deployed a 6-man rotation at multiple points earlier this year. However, due to the fact that the postseason is now just a couple of months away, they should not return to a 6-man rotation when McCullers returns.

As it stands, Justin Verlander should start game 1 of the postseason no matter the opponent. His 1.73 ERA leads the major leagues, his WHIP is under 0.90, and he’s having the season of his life at age 39. Framber Valdez also appears to be a lock to pitch exclusively out of the rotation as he leads the staff in innings pitched and also boasts a sub-3 ERA. From there, though, their pitching strategy could go many ways. Luis Garcia is the only one in the rotation with an ERA below league average and he struggled in the postseason last year as a starter. Cristian Javier has been excellent in the rotation this year but has no experience starting in the postseason. Jose Urquidy has a brilliant track record of relief performance October, especially in the World Series.

This is all to say that within the Astros’ elite rotation, there lies plenty of flexibility in the sense that most of the weapons in it have both experience and prior success coming out of the bullpen. That is important because a 6-man rotation is simply a non-option in the postseason; any team would want their best starters to take the hill in a potential series-clinching or elimination game. For that reason, it doesn’t make much sense to ease the current staff into a rhythm where they pitch on an extra day of rest right before the postseason starts, and it would make even less sense once McCullers enters the picture.

This season, the advent of the 6-man rotation has allowed the Astros to get the best out of young arms such as Javier and battle-worn arms such as Verlander by giving them an extra day of rest. While it gave them plenty of wins in the regular season, it won’t in the postseason. Verlander and Valdez especially will probably have to pitch on short rest, and that will become a virtual certainty if they find themselves in a deciding game 5 in the ALDS come October.

The team would be better off by working their starters into a routine where they pitch every 5 days at most for the remainder of the regular season, so that pitching on short rest (whether it’s starting or as a multi-inning reliever) in the postseason is less of an adjustment.

Of course, that creates the aforementioned dilemma of bumping one of the current starters out of the rotation and into the bullpen. Who should that be? Leave your replies below.

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