The Astros rolled into the 2020 season with high aspirations for the 4th year in a row. A World Series ring was perhaps not expected but anticipated. Most teams that are not the Evil Empire have trouble staying competitive for more than five years, and the litany of major free agents whose contracts expire over the next two seasons defines the window very clearly. This window was snapped shut on the organization’s hands today when Justin Verlander was announced to have a mysterious forearm/elbow injury, first reported by Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. The seemingly ageless ace delivered another stellar performance on his 12th career opening day, but that may be his only appearance of the truncated 2020 season.
Gold Jackets are Hard to Replace
Even though the season is 63% shorter than normal, depth has never been more important for an MLB roster. The potential for multiple players to suddenly become unavailable for 14 days or more will necessitate unproven rookies and career benchwarmers to carry significantly more weight than normal. Top-heavy rosters were vulnerable from the outset of the season due to this. This will not be 2018 pitching staff when all 5 starters were All-Stars. Losing the MLB’s most dominant pitcher in Gerrit Cole from last year’s three-headed hydra of aces made quiet concerns about the back of the rotations and the bullpen much more pressing. JV going down places the Astros in an extremely uncomfortable situation.
There have been 34 teams in the integration era that had two pitchers accumulate 200+ IP and maintain an ERA under 2.60. One team, the 1964 Chicago White Sox, had three such pitchers. Not surprisingly, the infamous 1968 year of the pitcher contributed 10 of these dual-threat seasons. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been accomplished by the 2011 Phillies, 2015 Dodgers, and twice by your 2005 and 2019 Houston Astros. All of these teams had a Cy Young winner and another pitcher place top-3 in voting. All three teams won fewer games the following year. No team lost both pitchers. The Phillies returned both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, (Cole Hamels also turned in 200+ innings, but his ERA was 2.79 so doesn’t meet our qualifiers), The Dodgers kept Clayton Kershaw, and the Astros still squeezed 148 innings out of an injured Roger Clemens. The 2020 Astros are in a historically awkward spot.
The return of Lance McCullers Jr. (whom this article was originally about) will help alleviate the ailment somewhat, but LMJ being the #3 is preferable to having him and another aging wonder, Zack Greinke, lead your rotation. Verlander’s absence places even greater stress on the unknowns in the fourth and fifth starter spots, as the team now has to replace 435.1 innings of work from the Cy Young winner and Runner-Up. Even with each starter only making 12 appearances this season, that is an extraordinary hurdle to clear.
A quick trip to Baseball Reference shows that nobody outside of Verlander, Cole, and Wade Miley cracked 100 innings pitched for the Astros. Since 1999, there have been 572 teams that had at least 4 pitchers accumulate 100+ IP in the same season. Having average or sub-par pitchers to soak up middle inning relief appearances isn’t a problem when you have the best offense (by wRC+) in league history. In 2020 however, COVID could sideline key offensive pieces like, say, Yordan Alvarez for an indeterminate amount of time. When your offense is much closer to league average, Jose Urquidy, Josh James, and Cy Sneeds‘ ~4.0+ ERA suddenly matters a lot more. Through the first three games of the season we have seen four rookies make relief appearances. Blake Taylor, the ONLY LHP in the bullpen, Enoli Paredes/Brandon Bailey who have never pitched above AA, and Christian Javier have all bridged the gap between the starter and closer.
Hiring James Click looks to be a fortuitous move, as the Astros may have to imitate the Tampa Bay Rays when it comes to creatively stitching a pitching staff together. The Rays became famous (relative to being the Rays) over 2018 and 2019 for their use of the opener. The basic idea is to use a closer in a low leverage situation to get the top of the order out, and then have the “starter” pitch the next 5 innings so as to only face the top of the order once. This mitigates the times through the order penalty but has seen mixed results. This article by our own Nick Lobracio details the effectiveness of the opener for the Rays in 2019. Dusty Baker is no Kevin Cash, but the analytical bent of the Houston front office may be strong enough to influence in-game decision making in this regard.
Can’t See the Forrest For the Whitley
Forrest Whitley has been the organization’s top SP prospect for the past three years. For 2018 and 2019 he ranked inside the top 10 on Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB Pipeline’s prospect lists. After a rough 2019 featuring control issues and injuries, he has slipped to the teens and twenties on those respective lists, but still maintains some of his shine. Whitley’s main allure is his high velocity and smorgasbord of pitches. He consistently throws a fastball, cutter, changeup, curveball and slider. That is freaking ridiculous. His scouting report has all of his pitches rated at 60 or better on the 20-80 scale. So why haven’t we seen him yet?
He served a 50-game drug suspension, has had two injuries and massive control issues. In a very limited sample size last season at AAA he posted a 12.21 ERA and an 8.7 FIP. Those numbers wouldn’t even make the Orioles taxi squad. There is a lack of advanced data on him (spin rate, spin efficiency, EV, BABIP, etc) so I can’t take too deep of a dive on him here. But what I can guarantee is that in 3-4 days he will be working out with the Astros. Why 3-4 days? That’s when the team can roster him and still save a year of service time. This scummy process is practiced by all MLB clubs and allows them to manipulate the arbitration system even more, but that’s a different post.
To Close Things Out
The Astros need starting pitchers and they need them now. The team is still a verifiable juggernaut on the offensive side of the ball, which should guarantee them at least a Wild Card spot in the new expanded playoff brackets to be implemented this year. A rag tag group of pitchers shrewdly deployed could be enough to get you into the postseason or win your division. When the playoffs start, the cream rises to the top though, and even a stellar bullpen can’t get you past a strong offensive team as the Astros-Rays ALDS proved last year. If the Astros want another shot at a Pennant and a ring, they have to get past the Twins and Yankees high power line-ups. Some of the rookies will have to step up big time if that’s to happen.