One of the biggest wild cards for the Houston Astros going into 2024, without question, is Lance McCullers Jr. When he's healthy, he has the potential to be a Cy Young candidate in the Astros' rotation, as he was an All-Star in 2017 and finished in the top seven of Cy Young voting in 2021.
While walks have been a problem for him at times, the guy has consistently missed bats and boasts a 3.35 career FIP despite the free passes he has a tendency to issue.
Unfortunately, staying healthy has been quite the challenge. McCullers Jr. missed the 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery, and then a flexor tendon injury in his forearm that required surgery this past June cost him the entire 2023 season.
Previous updates on McCullers Jr. were relatively vague beyond platitudes about how his rehab was on schedule and that he was expected to return sometime in 2024. Well, GM Dana Brown was being interviewed recently by Fox 26 where he gave fans a lot more to be optimistic about with the right-hander heading into spring training.
Lance McCullers Jr. will be at Astros spring training and has a target return date
Other than making a bad Valentine's Day joke and talking briefly about a potential Kyle Tucker extension, the big news out of that interview was about McCullers Jr. Brown raved about his progress in rehab as the pitcher is already playing catch at a 100 feet and will be with the club when spring training starts in less than two weeks.
Before fans get too excited, there's no chance McCullers Jr. is going to be ready to pitch to start the season. However, Brown did say that he's expected to return sometime in late July or early August and the team projects him to be a big help in the second half and (hopefully) postseason.
This update does help explain the Astros' inactivity in the free agency when it comes to starting pitching. While relying on McCullers Jr. to stay healthy is definitely a risk, adding him back into the mix right around the time of the trade deadline is something that the Astros have to account for. If what Brown says is correct and McCullers Jr. is actually healthy now, he should be as good or better than most of the guys that were available in free agency.
That said, there are no guarantees here. McCullers Jr. certainly looks like he's on the right track and one would hope that these surgeries will actually pay dividends. However, his track record of injury issues will remain a concern until he can prove that he can actually stay on the mound and return to form.