HOUSTON -- Hard-throwing right-hander Josh James will be in the Astros’ rotation to start the season, manager Dusty Baker said on Sunday. Baker’s announcement came as he lined up his rotation for the first four games of the season against the Mariners: Justin Verlander (Friday), Lance McCullers Jr. (Saturday), Zack Greinke (Sunday) and James (July 27).
James, who reported to camp late following the birth of his daughter, spent the entire 2019 season on the Astros’ Major League roster, appearing almost exclusively as a reliever. He had a 4.70 ERA and posted a 14.77 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, which was the fifth-best mark by a rookie in Major League history. He came up through the system as a starter.
The departure of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees opened a spot in the rotation, and James had jumped ahead in the race when spring camp was shut down in March. With José Urquidy (the presumptive fourth starter) on the injured list, another rotation spot was open. Baker has yet to announce who will start on July 28 against the Dodgers, though lefty Framber Valdez appears to be the most likely choice. Cy Sneed and prospect Cristian Javier could also be options.
“It will probably go down to the wire,” Baker said. “We don’t want to commit right now. We don’t want the guys to stop working or get down. We’ve talked about it, but we can’t say right now.”
Osuna, Peacock, Pruitt likely to miss opener
Already without one of their top setup men from last season, Joe Smith, who’s on the restricted list, the Astros could also be without closer Roberto Osuna and versatile relievers Brad Peacock (inflammation in right shoulder) and Austin Pruitt (bone bruise in right elbow) when the season starts.
“Pruitt’s probably ahead of Peacock right now, but he’s not ready, either,” Baker said. “That’s giving opportunity. That’s why we’re giving these opportunities to try to decide on which one of these young guys are going to break with us.”
Osuna isn’t injured, but he has yet to face hitters. He’s been spotted long-tossing, which appears to have been the extent of his throwing program so far. Baker said Osuna is on the “fast track,” though.
“He came late [to camp] by no fault of his own,” Baker said. “He’s working hard. And he’s not hurt. We’re trying to stop him, prevent him from getting hurt. He knows himself. He knows how he feels. We’re hoping that he might be ready sooner than later, but we’re at the mercy of when he’s ready.”
Without Smith, Osuna, Peacock and Pruitt, and with Valdez likely headed to the rotation, the Astros will undoubtedly start the season with some relievers who have no Major League experience. Thus opportunities abound for Javier (the team’s No. 6-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline), Brandon Bielak (No. 12), Enoli Paredes (No. 13), Jojanse Torres (No. 19) or Brett Conine (No. 26), among others.
“That’s where our catching corps comes in, that’s where [pitching coach Brent Strom] really earns his money,” Baker said. “Right now we’re at a practice situation, and you don’t know how guys are going to react during the season when it counts. That’s one thing I’m a little apprehensive about with the [new] three-batter-minimum rule [for relief pitchers]. That’s going to put a lot of people in a very volatile situation. Not only us, but a lot of other people.”
Javier pounds strike zone
Javier was impressive while throwing opposite Verlander during Sunday’s instrasquad scrimmage at Minute Maid Park. He allowed one run on six hits in five innings, and threw 51 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Verlander threw 51 of 74 for strikes.
“I was impressed with the fact [Javier] had a 2-1 ratio on balls to strikes, which is always great for a young pitcher,” Baker said.
Javier, despite having pitched in only two games above Double-A, could be forging a path to the Opening Day roster considering how thin Houston’s relief unit is. Across three Minor League levels last year, he posted a 1.74 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP and 170 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings and led all Minor League pitchers (minimum 100 innings) in opponents’ batting average (.130).
“It’s been a great opportunity for me in this camp to show what I’m really capable of, and I feel happy I’ve had a chance to show my full capability,” Javier said.
Rain threatens exhibitions
The Astros’ exhibition games against the Royals on Monday and Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium are in doubt because of weather. The team plans to decide early Monday whether to fly to Kansas City, where there’s an 80 percent chance of rain in the forecast.
“[The Royals are] supposed to call early in the morning and give us the forecast,” Baker said. “You hate to lose a day of work, but we need a game if we’re going to go there. We’ll see.”
Baker believes the team would work from Minute Maid Park on Monday and Tuesday if it doesn’t travel to Kansas City. That would leave the Astros without having faced another team in Summer Camp prior to Friday’s regular-season opener against the Mariners at Minute Maid Park.
McCullers was set to start Monday’s game against the Royals, followed by James on Tuesday.