'We have the depth': Analyzing Astros' rotation after JV injury

March 5th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For those hoping the Astros will make a run at signing free agents Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery to help fill out a starting rotation that’s dealing with injuries, it’s not happening.

Astros general manager Dana Brown said on Tuesday he remains confident in the team’s starting pitching depth and doesn’t plan to be in the market another arm. Brown’s comments came only hours after the Astros announced that ace pitcher Justin Verlander would begin the season on the injured list while he continues his preseason build-up.

Brown said he envisions a rotation of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, Hunter Brown and J.P. France to being the season, with Verlander expected to join the rotation at some point in April. Ronel Blanco, who threw three scoreless innings and struck out four batters in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to the Marlins, provides rotation depth, along with top pitching prospect Spencer Arrighetti.

“We don’t need to go on the market right now,” Brown said. “This is going to be a quick sideline [for Verlander]. Once he gets caught up and the velo starts to come back, we’ll start pitching him in games and competing him in games and he’ll be ready to go. I don’t think we have to go out and get anybody, because we have the depth.”

Valdez (198 innings), Javier (162), Brown (155 2/3) and France (136 1/3) were the only Astros pitchers to log at least 100 innings last year. Urquidy threw just 63 innings in the regular season after missing three months with right shoulder discomfort. Last year, the Astros also had Luis Garcia to begin the season before he suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery after his sixth start of the season.

“It’s more like Valdez is probably going to be our No. 1, and it’s probably some combination of Javier, Brown, Urquidy and France,” Brown said. “France has been throwing the ball well. That’s kind of like what the five will be, and there’s a chance we may go to a six-man [rotation] at some point, and we could throw Blanco in there, or J.V. will slide in when we go to a six-man. The good thing is we have depth, and we also have Arrighetti, who has been throwing the ball well.”

Blanco has looked great this spring, throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out eight batters. He struck out 52 batters in 52 innings with a 4.50 ERA in 17 games (seven starts) for Houston last year. At Triple-A in 2023, he had a 3.68 ERA with 81 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP in 73 1/3 innings.

“How far he’s come, I feel really good about where Ronel is right now and having him and how we deploy him throughout a game. It’s a nice piece to have,” manager Joe Espada said.

France reported to camp with shoulder inflammation but is scheduled to face hitters for the first time on Wednesday with a live batting practice session. That should leave him just enough time to get built up for the regular season, especially considering he probably won’t pitch until the fourth or fifth game on the schedule.

“He looked good the other day,” Brown said. “We have the depth. There’s no reason to panic or anything.”

Brown is a fan of using a six-man rotation when the scheduled dictates during long stretches of consecutive games without a day off. It allows for extra rest for a pitching staff that has worked hard the last few years with deep playoff runs. The Astros will play 13 games in a row from April 5-17 and 16 in a row May 7-22.

“We’ll have conversations with our pitching coaches,” Brown said. "When you don’t have those days off, you try to insert that sixth man to keep these guys fresh.”