WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Having already announced veteran right-hander Zack Greinke would be the Astros’ Opening Day starter when they face the A’s on Thursday, Astros manager Dusty Baker set his rotation Friday for the remainder of the series in Oakland.
Right-hander Cristian Javier will start the second game of the season on April 2, followed by right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. -- who earlier this week agreed to a five-year, $85-million contract extension, according to a source -- on April 3 and right-hander Jose Urquidy on April 4. Baker said the club hasn’t settled on the fifth starter, a spot that likely will be between young right-handers Luis Garcia and Brandon Bielak.
Left-hander Framber Valdez, who was the Astros’ most consistent starter last year, broke his left ring finger March 2 and is out indefinitely.
Javier, who finished in third in place in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2020 following a season in which he went 5-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 12 games (10 starts), was delayed in the spring because he spent a week in quarantine. He’s pitched only three innings in Grapefruit League games but has been building up his pitch count on the back fields.
McCullers, in his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire 2019 season, went 3-3 with a 3.93 ERA in 11 starts last year, including a 2.18 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in his final eight starts of the regular season. McCullers threw 90 pitches in a “B” game on Wednesday, which was his highest pitch count to end a Spring Training in his career.
Urquidy tossed five perfect innings against the Cardinals on Thursday night, throwing 38 of his 54 pitches for strikes. After beginning last year on the injured list following a bout with the coronavirus, Urquidy made five starts and posted a 2.73 ERA.
Cishek departure opens door in bullpen
The decision by veteran reliever Steve Cishek, who was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, to request his release leaves the Astros with a spot to fill in their bullpen. Cishek had pitched well since giving up three homers in his first outing of the spring, but Baker said Friday the team hadn’t decided if he was going to make the team, and Cishek had an opt-out clause in his contract.
“We hate to see him go, because he was definitely in the running, but we hadn’t made up our mind yet,” he said.
Still, Cishek was set to make $2.25 million if he was added to the roster, and that could have been enough to push the Astros past the collective balance tax of $210 million in payroll.
With Cishek gone, the Astros are going to start the regular season without veteran reliever Pedro Báez, who hasn’t even faced hitters this spring following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Andre Scrubb, who was battling for a bullpen spot, is unlikely to make the Opening Day roster now after coming down with a sore shoulder a week ago.
That leaves Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, Enoli Paredes, Brooks Raley, Ryne Stanek and Blake Taylor as apparent locks to make the club. If they carry eight relievers, that leaves two more spots. Garcia or Bielak will get one, with Bryan Abreu likely also making the team. Garcia, Bielak and Abreu can each provide length. Báez and Scrubb should be activated early in the season.
Scrubb began throwing off flat ground on Friday and called his injury “minor fatigue.”
“From what I’m hearing, we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Greinke builds up endurance
In his final spring outing before he makes the Opening Day start for the Astros, veteran right-hander Zack Greinke said he was pleased with his endurance, which wasn’t good at the start of last season. Greinke allowed three runs, five hits and three walks while striking out five batters across 4 1/3 innings on 88 pitches in Friday’s 9-0 loss to the Marlins at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Greinke, in the final year of his contract, made four Grapefruit League starts and posted a 3.55 ERA with four walks and 11 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. He’ll next get the ball on Thursday in Oakland for the 2021 regular-season opener against the A’s.
“I’m pretty happy with it, but not the best-case scenario,” Greinke said of his spring finale. “I’m feeling healthy and got a lot of endurance. The stuff’s pretty sharp and command was pretty good. Obviously, I’m pretty happy with the command, but I would like my stuff to be a tad sharper, and maybe that will happen when the real games come.”
In his first start of the regular season last year, Greinke tired after only 58 pitches and 3 1/3 innings. He said afterwards that his endurance wasn’t there.
“He looked better tonight than he did at this time last year,” Baker said. “Last year at this point, when he opened the season, he didn’t look very good and he had to pitch himself into shape. Now he’s working on pitches, he’s working on the slider. He’s way ahead of where he was last year.
The Astros reassigned the following players to the Minors on Friday: outfielder Ronnie Dawson, right-handers Ralph Garza Jr., Hector Velázquez and Carson LaRue, and infielders Alex De Goti, Jeremy Peña and CJ Hinojosa.