Inbox: Does shorter season help arms? Whitley?

June 29th, 2020

HOUSTON -- With the Astros set to open summer camp late this week at Minute Maid Park and the restart of the regular season to come three weeks later, let’s open the Inbox and answer some of your questions.

Yes, I think the shorter season will definitely help their pitching staff. That’s going to be the case with every team, but the Astros should benefit greatly because they have two older pitchers at the top of their rotation -- Justin Verlander, 37, and Zack Greinke, 36 -- who should be fresh by October, should the Astros reach the postseason. Then there’s Lance McCullers Jr., who missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery and hasn’t started a game in nearly two years. Any worries about his workload are gone. José Urquidy, the presumptive No. 4 starter, also pitched a career high in innings last year.

If each of the starters makes 13 starts (one roughly every five days in a season that lasts 66 days), they could average seven innings per start and still not reach 100 innings thrown in the regular season. Plus, Astros manager Dusty Baker has had the reputation of pushing his starters deeper into games more than most managers, and he’ll be more inclined to do that in 2020 when workloads won’t be a real issue. Of course, pitchers going deeper into games will help the bullpen as well.

Whitley was on the team’s 56-man player pool, and Astros general manager James Click was adamant that the players in the pool were there because they can help the team win. Whitley, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, who has struggled to get his career off the ground the past few years, is going to have to really take a huge step forward to show that he can pitch in the Majors.

Whitley showed up at Spring Training earlier this year with 230 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame, representing a 40-pound increase from two years earlier. That was by design. He felt that he was running out of gas at midseason and wanted to be stronger. Still, Whitley was working on his arm angle during spring camp and seems to be regularly undergoing some mechanical changes.

After missing 50 games due to a suspension in 2017 and then suffering a pair of oblique injuries in ‘18, Whitley’s ‘19 didn’t go much smoother. He combined to go 3-7 with a 7.99 ERA, with 44 walks and 86 strikeouts across four Minor League levels.Whitley began the season at Triple-A Round Rock and had a 12.21 ERA in eight games (five starts) before being placed on the injured list with shoulder fatigue.

That remains to be seen. My guess is that we’ll see games go much faster because players won’t be prone to entertain the fans, and I imagine there won’t be as many distractions at the ballpark. Players will be focused on the game like never before. Of course, if Spring Training was any indication, the lack of fans should help the Astros. They were getting booed regularly in the Grapefruit League by fans who were upset over the team’s sign-stealing scandal, which led to the suspension and dismissal of manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January. No fans in the stands means no booing when the Astros play on the road.

The first three pitchers in the rotation are set in stone: Verlander (if healthy), Greinke and McCullers, in order. Urquidy was believed to be the front-runner for the No. 4 spot, and hard-throwing Josh James was probably a little ahead in the No. 5 starter competition over Framber Valdez, Bryan Abreu and newcomer Austin Pruitt. Because Brad Peacock was slow to recover from an elongated shoulder injury last season, he was slotted for the bullpen. Who knows if the long layoff will change those plans?

The 2020 Trade Deadline will be on Aug. 31 this year, giving teams less than six weeks before deciding if they’re going to be buyers or sellers in the 60-game season. Because the season is so short, most teams will still be in contention on Aug. 31, so there might not be a strong trade market. The Astros have been aggressive at the Trade Deadline in recent years, but the club is pretty loaded across the board. Sure, every team could use more pitching, and injuries may dictate where their ultimate weaknesses lie Aug. 30.

I’d be surprised if the Astros made a huge move ahead of this year's Trade Deadline, but the upcoming offseason could be a different story. Houston could lose its entire starting outfield to free agency and Kyle Tucker hasn’t yet proved that he’s ready to be an everyday player. The Astros will have holes to fill this winter, but how much money will they be willing to spend? With every team taking losses across the board because of the pandemic, spending will be down.

With Opening Day rosters at 30 players and set to stay that way for the first couple of weeks of the season, the Astros will be permitted to bring three taxi-squad players on all road trips, though one must be a catcher. Taxi-squad players will not receive MLB service time even though they can work out with the team. Some of the names to watch who could be traveling with the club if they don’t make the 30-man roster are catcher Garrett Stubbs, pitcher Cy Sneed, infielders Jack Mayfield, Taylor Jones and Nick Tanielu and outfielders Myles Straw and Chas McCormick.

The Astros would like to extend both George Springer and Michael Brantley beyond 2020, but who knows how the pandemic will affect that. Astros owner Jim Crane said last week that the team’s recent success meant it was in better financial shape than most and that the club could be aggressive in free agency. However, Crane admitted that the Astros have lost tens of millions of dollars. The free-agent market won’t be as robust for any player considering the losses suffered around the league. How many teams will be willing to spend big? That could be particularly bad news for Springer, who’s hitting free agency for the first time at age 31 and could have been in line for a deal well north of $100 million under regular circumstances.

When the Astros hired Baker and gave him a one-year contract (with a club option for 2021), I thought there was a path for Hinch to return as manager in ’21. I think that’s very unlikely now. I can’t imagine the Astros letting Baker manage a shortened season of 60 games and not picking up his option for ’21. That wouldn’t be fair to Baker, one of baseball’s most respected managers and men. If Baker wants to manage in ’21, I’d be willing to bet the Astros will have him back.

As for Hinch, I was certain that he would manage again in 2021, but there might not be any openings this offseason coming off a 60-game season. Again, it would be hard to ditch a manager following a 60-game season that will feel incomplete. Hinch will be in the game in some capacity next season, and I’m sure we’ll see him manage another team sooner than later.