WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros have decisions to make about how to navigate through the early part of the season without Justin Verlander, and over the next two weeks, they'll look mostly internally for options to account for the many innings the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner vacated with his recent injury.
The Astros have a handful of candidates who were already in contention for the fifth spot in the rotation, so in that respect, little has changed. Instead of Framber Valdez, Austin Pruitt, Josh James and Bryan Abreu fighting it out for one job, they'll compete for two -- like musical chairs, but backward.
While the spots are likely to be filled internally, the Astros could examine outside options, though trades this late in the spring are harder to consummate. The asking price is higher, and, without knowing how long Verlander will be out, the Astros would have to weigh the advantages to gaining a pitcher who can absorb innings -- something they desperately need -- against what they'd have to pay in prospects.
Given how much the Astros' farm system has thinned in the past couple of years, in addition to their pending loss of two rounds of Draft picks in 2020 and '21, it may not be reasonable to seek help from the outside.
It'll likely come down to the Astros selecting from their own personnel. Here are the four front-runners:
James, who yielded three runs on four hits and three walks over 3 2/3 innings in Houston's 3-0 split-squad loss to Atlanta on Tuesday, likely has an inside track, given he's been the favorite for much of the spring to win the fifth-starter's spot. James throws hard, has stayed healthy and seems to be benefiting from an adjustment to his mechanics that has resulted in a more linear delivery. James also has a track record in the big leagues -- he spent time with the Astros in 2018 and '19, appearing on postseason rosters both years.
Valdez's left-handedness is a selling point, but he's struggled in limited stints with Houston in the past. He pitched to a 5.86 ERA over 26 appearances (eight starts) for the Astros in '19, and he had little success against righties, who slashed .291/.373/.461 off him. Valdez may be more suited as bullpen depth, though he'll end Spring Training plenty stretched out to start. On Tuesday, he pitched through an isolated downpour and yielded four runs on four hits and one walk over 3 2/3 innings in the Astros’ 7-4 loss to the Mets.
"I showed up to this Spring Training just trying to do my work and earn that spot on the team, not hoping for an injury to give me that advantage,” Valdez said. "I just keep trying to ramp up that intensity, that focus, so I can keep going and hopefully make the club."
Familiarity won't be an issue for Pruitt, who got the news last offseason that he had been traded from the Rays to the Astros by none other than Houston general manager James Click, a former Rays executive. Pruitt was obtained to provide depth to whatever area of the Astros' pitching staff needed it the most, and it’s pretty obvious now where that need is.
Technically, Pruitt started only twice in 14 appearances last year, but he threw four or more innings four times when following an opener, and he generated a 52.2% ground-ball rate over 47 innings, per FanGraphs. Manager Dusty Baker likes Pruitt for simpler reasons: "He throws strikes."
“Verlander is a huge piece of the staff, so it's a pretty big blow,” Pruitt said. “I know guys will step up and pull their weight. Anyone who gets a chance in that spot is going to do well. Everyone in the clubhouse is really good.”
Most of the speculation surrounding the competition to be the fifth starter has pointed to the other three candidates, but now that there’s an extra spot open, it’s probably wise not to discount Abreu.
Abreu is ready for the big leagues. It's widely understood he'll spend more time with Houston than in the Minors this season. He could probably benefit from a little more seasoning at Triple-A Round Rock to start the season, but if this is his shot, why not give it to him? Abreu had a brief but memorable taste of the big leagues last year -- he struck out 13 in 8 2/3 innings in the regular season and sneaked onto all three postseason rosters.