Through the past two seasons, no team has won as many games as the Houston Astros, who’ve claimed 204 regular-season contests, plus 15 more in the playoffs. That was due not just to Houston’s top-end star power, but also to its depth, which provided the team cover when one of its stars got hurt and produced a compounding erosive effect on opponents.
In their championship year of 2017, but particularly in 2018, the Astros lineup had no easy outs and its rotation had no soft underbelly. Houston could break a game open with home runs, but more than any other team in baseball, it had the ability to string together marathon offensive innings that contained one line drive to the gap after another, moving base runners around the diamond methodically and inexorably. In 2016, Michigan’s football team ran the ball 53 times for 486 yards in a 78-0 win against Rutgers; when all nine Astros hitters were cooking in recent seasons, it kind of felt like that. And at least Rutgers got to play Illinois the following week; any Astros opponent who endured Justin Verlander one night had to deal with Gerrit Cole the next, and after that 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, then Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. and their demon curveballs.
Heading into 2019, the Astros have lost three-fifths of that rotation: McCullers is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and Morton signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as a free agent. Keuchel remains on the market, as probably the top remaining free agent, and while Keuchel and the Astros have spoken about a return to the club, Houston is offering only a short-term deal, which hasn’t interested Keuchel. The formula is the same, but the ingredients will have to be different this year.
Verlander, probably the best pitcher in the American League since he arrived from Detroit in August 2017, remains, as does Cole. But all three of Keuchel, McCullers, and Morton have been All-Stars in the past two years, and the three of them combined to make 86 starts and throw 500 innings in 2018. That’s a huge void. But Houston, somehow, has assembled a collection of pitchers who can fill those three rotation spots and then some. Even in a worst-case scenario, the Astros’ 2019 rotation should keep opposing offenses from turning every outing at Minute Maid Park into a Chiefs-Rams game. In a best-case scenario, the swarm of young talent Houston has stashed in the upper minors could make this rotation as scary as any Astros rotation this century.
Miley, a key part of Milwaukee’s run to the NLCS last year, signed with Houston for one year and $4.5 million after posting a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts with the Brewers. Miley isn’t an incredibly inspiring signing because he’s bounced from team to team throughout his career, doesn’t throw particularly hard, doesn’t strike out that many batters, and has a habit of being photographed in such a way that makes him look like was pulled out of the soil by his ankles, like a carrot, and he isn’t happy about it.
You can tell how Wade Miley's time in Baltimore went just by looking at this picture but by God Bob Costas is gonna get his thousand words' worth pic.twitter.com/429md3Kyzz— Michael Baumann (@MichaelBaumann) October 7, 2018
A soft-tossing 32-year-old lefty who followed up four below-average seasons with half a good season might seem like a fluke, but there’s an impetus for Miley’s sudden success: The addition of a cutter, which he threw more than 42 percent of the time in 2018. The cutter isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, but pitchers who can locate multiple types of fastball—e.g., four-seamer, cutter, sinker—are able to keep hitters from squaring them up. Like a good defensive boxer, Miley will accept getting hit, but is able to keep himself from getting hit hard. It’s not the same repertoire as Keuchel, who throws a cutter but favors a sinker, but it’s the same approach.
The Astros are pouncing on Miley after only a few starts’ worth of proof that his adjustments are sustainable, just like they did with Morton two years ago. So don’t think of Miley as a replacement for both Keuchel and Morton. Instead, imagine that Keuchel and Morton went off into the woods, got lost, and Keuchel ate Morton before wandering back into Astros camp.
McHugh is one of the longest-tenured Astros, but he wasn’t an integral part of their 2017 World Series team. McHugh battled elbow trouble, lost his spot in the rotation, and made just two postseason appearances. In 2018, he couldn’t force his way back into the rotation and pitched in relief regularly for the first time in his major league career. In the bullpen, McHugh’s fastball velocity ticked up, he gradually introduced a slider, and he turned into one of the best middle relievers in the game. In the first half of the season, McHugh went 5-0 with an 0.96 ERA in 46 2/3 innings over 32 appearances. He cooled off in the second half, but finished the season with a 1.99 ERA and an 11.7 K/9 ratio. Right-handed batters hit just .135/.196/.220 off him.
Those incredible rate stats will probably take a hit once McHugh is again exerting himself for 100 pitches an outing, and not 30, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was a reliable mid-rotation starter. In 2014, McHugh posted a 141 ERA+ in 25 starts, and in 2015 he threw 203 2/3 league-average innings, won 19 games, and picked up a couple of down-ballot Cy Young votes.
Brad Peacock and Framber Valdéz
Miley and McHugh have rotation spots pretty much locked down, but that leaves open one more spot in the rotation. Peacock would appear to have the inside track; while Houston’s rotation was extremely durable in 2018, that wasn’t the case the year before, when Peacock, armed with a newfound and devastating sinker, threw 132 innings with an 11.0 K/9 and a 136 ERA+, all career highs at the time. Though he made 21 starts, he also appeared 13 times out of the pen; Peacock would just show up from time to time will little or no warning and make hitters miserable for a while, like acid reflux or House Hunters reruns.
In 2018, Houston needed Peacock to start only once, but he pitched effectively out of the pen. Last year, 273 pitchers threw at least 60 innings in the majors. Among those, Peacock had the ninth-best strikeout rate (35.3 percent) and 16th-best adjusted deserved run average, or DRA- (57).
His competition is 25-year-old lefty Framber Valdéz, who made more starts last year (five) than any Astros pitcher apart from Verlander, Cole, Keuchel, Morton, and McCullers. Valdéz went 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA and showcased a hellacious curveball along the way, but his underlying numbers were more troubling: a DRA- of 136.8, which comes out to an estimated 6.12 ERA, and 24 walks in 37 innings. Valdéz has continued to struggle with his command and control this spring, walking five and hitting one, while striking out only three in 9 1/3 innings. According to Jake Kaplan of The Athletic, Valdéz’s best shot at the rotation might involve the Astros determining that Peacock is so valuable out of the pen that they can’t move him to the rotation.
Despite the relative stability to Houston’s rotation last season, the days of five starters lasting a team 162 games are pretty much over. That means the door remains open for some of the most exciting pitchers in Houston’s minor league system to contribute, even if they’re not in line to do so by early April.
James, a burly 6-foot-3 right-hander, exploded onto the scene late last year, or rather, his fastball did. Take it from Rafael Devers, who might has well have brought a fistful of uncooked bucatini to the plate in this ALCS showdown with James.
Two years ago, James was working not at 102 miles per hour, but in the low 90s while battling persistent fatigue and struggling to stay in shape. James went to see a sleep specialist at the advice of his roommate and discovered he had sleep apnea. The doctor fitted him with a CPAP machine and practically overnight, in baseball terms, the 34th-rounder out of Western Oklahoma State added several ticks of velocity to his fastball.
After his electric cameo in 2018—29 strikeouts and a 2.35 ERA in 23 regular-season innings, then two appearances in the ALCS—James was the front-runner to grab the fifth starter’s spot before a strained quad put him on the shelf. James, like Peacock and McHugh before him, will work out of the bullpen to start the year while waiting for a rotation spot to open up.
Forrest Whitley and the Other Kids
Between Miley, McHugh, Peacock, Valdéz, and James, the Astros can call on five pitchers with at least some track record of big league success, right off the bat, to fill their three open rotation spots. Even Valdéz, shaky though he’s been this spring, is better than some of the pitchers Milwaukee, Oakland, or Colorado—all playoff teams—started down the stretch last year. But that’s not the end of Houston’s options, as their list of top prospects includes several talented starting pitching prospects who should be ready for the majors sometime this year.
Whitley, a 6-foot-7 21-year-old from San Antonio, was Houston’s first pick in the 2016 draft, and is now the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball. Whitley is a prototypical power pitcher with an explosive mid-90s fastball and power curve, and he is still filling out his gigantic frame. At the same time, Whitley is polished for such a young pitcher with such good stuff; he made it to Double-A within 14 months of being drafted out of high school and is currently striking out more than a batter an inning as a non-roster invitee in Houston’s major league camp. Despite his youth, Whitley might have made the big leagues already had he not lost the first 50 games of 2018 to a suspension for violating the minor league drug policy.
Whitley topped the Astros’ top 10 prospects list at Baseball Prospectus this offseason, with James at no. 3. Fifth and sixth on that list were another pair of recent high draft picks: right-handers J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin. Bukauskas is a small (6-foot, 196 pounds) righty who went 15th overall in the 2017 draft out of North Carolina. Bukauskas might end up in the bullpen because of his size and violent delivery, but he throws in the mid-90s and he has an incredible slider. Essentially, Bukauskas is what McCullers was four years ago but with a different breaking ball. Forty-one picks after they took Bukauskas, the Astros plucked Martin from Texas A&M. He’s not quite as spectacular as Bukauskas, let alone Whitley, but he projects as a solid mid-rotation starter with the ability to command a fastball, change-up, slider mix. If Bukauskas is the next McCullers, Martin is the next McHugh.
The Astros have a sliding scale of options to fill their open rotation spots. On one end of the continuum is crafty veteran Miley, and on the other end is the electrifying prospect Whitley. James, Valdéz, Peacock, and McHugh offer intermediate options in terms of excitement, experience, and risk.
None of these pitchers combine experience and performance like Keuchel and Morton do, but Houston’s depth in this area makes it understandable that they’d want to move on from last year’s veterans. The reason to develop such a high-volume pipeline of young pitchers, after all, is so up-and-coming arms can replace veteran pitchers if they get hurt or leave the team. At least for now, Houston will probably be able to cycle in this next group of starters without making a major trade or giving out a big free-agent contract. It seems impossible in this day and age, but even now, the Astros have more good starting pitchers than they can use.