May 1, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Brandon Bielak (64) delivers a pitch during the second inning against the San Francisco Giants at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Justice: The Astros suddenly have pitching issues. Hey, if championships were easy, everyone would win ’em
The Astros have their first significant speed bump of this young season: three injured starting pitchers. More worrisome is that it’s impossible to know when or if Lance McCullers, José Urquidy, and Luis Garcia will throw another pitch this season.
This was predictable in that the Astros had an extraordinary run of good fortune with their rotation last season, leading the majors with 950 innings, 89% of those coming from the opening five.
Of the 30 American League pitchers that worked at least 148 innings, five of them were Astros. Considering that Justin Verlander, Urquidy, and Luis Garcia accounted for 496 2/3 innings, the Astros will be burning the midnight oil trying to replace ‘em all.
And those 950 innings from starters were a huge reason the bullpen was so dominant in October: microscopic 0.83 ERA. Dusty Baker did a brilliant job managing the workload of his relievers.
If you’re inclined to second-guess Jim Crane for not acquiring a veteran starting pitcher in the wake of Verlander’s signing with the Mets, that’s fair criticism.
But remember that his first priority was shoring up the offense, which led to the signing of Jose Abreu and the re-signing of Michael Brantley.
Those moves pushed the Astros payroll to $191.7 million, an eyelash shy of the team-record $194.2 million payroll in 2021.
You are probably wondering why Crane didn’t push it a bit more, figuring this core group probably is only going to be together for two more seasons anyway.
That’s not how Crane has operated. Since his rebuild turned a corner in 2015, he has practiced sustainability. That philosophy has meant saying goodbye to some beloved and valuable players, but in doing so, Crane has kept the Astros from hitting the wall with a bloated payroll and too many unproductive older guys.
If you’re inclined to argue with the results of this thinking, you’re on your own. Since 2015, the Astros have won 727 games, second-most in the majors, trailing only the Dodgers (762). Their 56 playoff victories are nine more than any other team.
Being a service-oriented column and all, we bring solutions.
McCullers seems to be progressing steadily from his latest arm issue. If he could return in the second half of the season and pitch effectively, it would be a huge, huge boost.
As for the others, it’s impossible to know. Urquidy (shoulder) is shut down indefinitely. Garcia (elbow) will undergo tests today.
Solutions? Hunter Brown has done terrific work as the replacement for Lance McCullers Jr., and Brandon Bielak did a great job in pitching four innings on Monday after Garcia walked off the mound with a trainer after eight pitches on Monday.
Bielak seems certain to get one of the two remaining slots. As for the other, 28-year-old right-hander J.P. France has a 2.33 ERA at Sugar Land.
Former top prospect Forrest Whitley has given the Astros no reason to think he’s ready for a breakthrough. In his last three starts, he has allowed 13 earned runs in 13 innings with seven walks and 11 strikeouts.
The 25-year-old took positive steps forward in spring training and opened the Triple-A season with a pair of decent starts. Since then, he has regressed.
For now, the Astros have enough off days that they may not even need a fifth starter for a couple of weeks. This is uncomfortable territory since the larger goal is getting to October with arms fresh enough to pitch the most important innings of the season.
On the other hand, this may be the best bullpen the Astros have ever had, and if one of the solutions is a bullpen game every fifth day, so be it. That’s not ideal, and for a team that gears everything around being at its best in October, a traditional five-man rotation would seem to be the smarter way to go.
Trades? The Astros may not have the depth to make an impact trade. Top prospect Drew Gilbert is definitely untouchable. After him, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Would the White Sox part with free agent-to-be Lucas Giolito? Probably. Would the price be uncomfortably high? Definitely.
At this point in the season, the price for a starting pitcher would be unreasonably high since even the worst teams—Oakland being the exception—don’t want to send their fans a message about pulling the plug on the season.
In a perfect world, France will show the Astros he belongs in the big leagues, and Whitley would harness all that talent.
In the end, it’s about getting to October with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown and all those shutdown relievers at their best. Hey, if championships were easy, everyone would win ‘em.
“Here’s how you build a champion,” Phil Garner quoted one of his mentors as saying. “You get all the starting pitching you can get, and then you go out and get some more.”
Good read as always.