With Urquidy sidelined, here's the Astros' potential starting rotation

March 19th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The news Monday that is likely to begin the season on the injured list after being diagnosed with a right forearm muscle strain has further put the squeeze on an Astros starting rotation that will already be without ace Justin Verlander when the season begins next week.

Astros manager Joe Espada has announced that left-hander Framber Valdez and righty Cristian Javier would start the first two games of the season March 28-29 against the Yankees. From there, the rest of the rotation to start the season is shaping up to be Hunter Brown, J.P. France and Ronel Blanco. Brandon Bielak is also being stretched out as a starter, and he should make the club because he’s out of options.

“I don’t want to say he has a spot, but he is pitching his way onto this team,” Espada said.

Espada said Monday that Verlander would face hitters for the first time this spring in the next “day or two,” which would be a significant step for him. He reported to camp two weeks behind schedule because of a shoulder issue and will start the season on the IL.

“We’ve been tested before and we got guys in there who will step up and provide coverage,” Espada said.

Here’s a closer look at where the Astros’ starting pitching stands with a little more than a week to go before Opening Day:

2023 stats: 12-11, 3.45 ERA, 200 strikeouts/57 walks in 198 innings

Spring skinny: The biggest takeaway from Valdez’s spring to date is that he’s been in the strike zone. He’s walked only two batters and struck out 14 in 9 1/3 innings, though he’s given up 15 hits and eight earned runs.

Quotable: “I feel responsible regardless of the situation the team is in right now, whether everybody is healthy or not. As soon as I came up to the Majors, that was the responsibility I thought -- throw a lot of innings, get a lot of out -- and that’s always been the same thing for me.” -- Valdez

2023 stats: 10-5, 4.56 ERA, 159 strikeouts/62 walks in 162 innings.

Spring skinny: Javier came to camp 15 pounds lighter than he was in 2023 in order to be more fluid in his mechanics; he’s pitching at the same weight he was in his breakout 2022 season. He’s carrying a 4.30 ERA and 1.02 WHIP through 14 2/3 spring innings and has made progress in better holding runners.

Quotable: “We’re going to ask a lot of these guys, like we’ve done in years past. It’s important for those guys to keep us in ballgames, and I feel confident that Javier and Valdez and even Hunter Brown, they’re going to do it.” -- Espada

2023 stats: 11-13, 5.09 ERA, 187 strikeouts/55 walks in 155 ⅔ innings

Spring skinny: After an up-and-down rookie season, Brown admitted fatigue played a role in his second-half performance and should be better equipped for his workload this year. He started throwing a slider this year to make his fastball play better with good results. Brown has a 2.84 ERA in 12 2/3 spring innings, including five innings with five strikeouts in Houston's 6-5 loss to Miami on Monday.

Quotable: “There’s no doubt about this stuff and how good this guy can become. He’s going to be a No. 1 one day and we can all feel that, but he’s going to have to take that next step with maturity, controlling emotions and all that stuff you want to see out of a young pitcher turning the corner and becoming more aware of the things you need to do to be more consistent.” -- Espada

2023 stats: 11-6, 3.83 ERA, 101 strikeouts/47 walks in 101 innings

Spring skinny: France dealt with shoulder inflammation in the spring and didn’t pitch in a Grapefruit League game until Saturday, giving up one run and four hits with four strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings. That’s behind him now and he hopes to built up to 95 pitches or so in his first start of the season.

Quotable: “If you go in there thinking, ‘You’ve got to pick up more slack,’ then it’s just going to put more unneeded pressure on you, from my standpoint. I’m going to go out there and do what I can do every start and give the guys my all.” -- France

2023 stats: 2-1, 4.50 ERA, 52 strikeouts/28 walks in 52 innings

Spring skinny: Blanco has thrown the ball extremely well this spring and appears in line to grab the final spot in the rotation. He’s struck out 13 batters and allowed four hits and four walks in 11 2/3 innings scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play.

Quotable: “He’s throwing the ball really, really well.” -- Espada