Is another Opening Day in Framber's future?
Lefty ace continues stellar spring with strong effort vs. Mets
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros aren’t ready to officially say so yet, but the way things are lining up, it shouldn’t be a surprise who takes the mound on Opening Day. In this situation, Occam’s razor applies: the simplest answer is usually the correct one. And for the Astros, the logical choice is Framber Valdez.
“Probably,” said manager Dusty Baker. “But I don’t want to make it official just yet.”
No problem, Dusty. That’s fine. But in the meantime, let’s connect the dots a little bit on our own.
Not only did taking the ball opposite Max Scherzer in Saturday night’s 2-0 loss to the Mets at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches line Valdez up to start the club’s March 30 opener against the White Sox on regular rest. But the All-Star lefty is the Astros’ clear ace and has looked sharp all spring, coming off a spectacular 2022 campaign and a winter in which the rotation lost Justin Verlander to free agency.
It also wouldn’t be the first time Valdez received the assignment. He made his first Opening Day start for the club in 2022, while Verlander returned from Tommy John surgery to pitch the third game of the season.
“Not that I expect it, but if I am, I’m just ready to get the job done,” Valdez said via translator Jenloy Herrera. “Do the same thing I did last year or be better than last year, and hopefully get positive results.”
Asked what it would mean to get the nod again this year, Valdez said, “It would mean a lot to me. I would be very satisfied with it and feel very proud of all the hard work I’ve done.”
If Valdez’s results this spring are any indication, he’s nearly ready. Though outshone by Scherzer on Saturday, Valdez nonetheless limited the Mets to one run on four hits and two walks over 4 2/3 innings, building up to 83 pitches in steamy South Florida conditions. The bases-loaded jam Valdez created in the fifth, which prompted his exit, was one of the few times this spring he’s looked like less than vintage Framber.
Across four Grapefruit League starts, Valdez owns a 1.98 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.
“I feel prepared for the season,” he said.
If nothing else, this spring has served as further proof of Valdez’s remarkable progression from erratic reliever to one of the top left-handers in the sport. After two promising seasons, he graduated into that tier last year, finishing 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA and leading American League hurlers in innings and complete games. Valdez was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game, finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting and was terrific in the postseason, earning the victory in two of the Astros’ four World Series wins.
“He’s come a long ways in a short period of time,” Baker said. “He’s had three quality years here. He’s been great, and he’s really matured as a player and a person.”
What Valdez was more than anything in 2022 was a workhorse, and a great one. The only AL pitcher to eclipse 200 innings in the regular season, Valdez logged 226 1/3 innings overall as he helped Houston play as deep into October as possible. As a result, his innings spiked 70 percent compared to the previous year; that impressive workload was part of the reason the Astros requested Valdez not participate in the World Baseball Classic this spring.
It was a request the team did not make to right-hander Cristian Javier, whose five-year extension signed in February paints him as the club’s other Opening Day candidate with Lance McCullers Jr. injured. Javier will make his first Grapefruit League start on Sunday, which would still line him up to be on regular rest come March 30. But Valdez has already built up past that point with four spring starts.
Regardless of how the alignment shakes out, much of the Astros’ success this season could hinge on how well Valdez and Javier respond following big innings jumps in 2022.
“Framber is strong,” Baker said. “He works out hard. It’s important that we keep our starters healthy. The healthier they are, [the] more likely the healthier our bullpen is, too.”