Had the season not been cut down to 60 games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Astros would have had the luxury of being more patient with right-hander Josh James, who walked 11 batters in six innings over two starts to begin the season. With time short, the Astros moved James to the bullpen and inserted rookie right-hander Brandon Bielak into the rotation, giving him his first Major League start Thursday in Arizona.
The decision also gives the Astros another proven arm in a bullpen full of rookies -- and one with some playoff experience. James spent the entire 2019 season in Houston’s bullpen and averaged 14.77 strikeouts per nine innings. He came to Spring Training aiming to win a spot in the rotation and did just that during Summer Camp, but he had control problems from the get-go.
“I think we need James in the bullpen, at the back of the bullpen,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “The back end is mighty young, and Bielak has pitched well in long relief.”
James will be available in relief perhaps Thursday and definitely by Friday, when the Astros open a three-game series at Oakland. The Astros also pushed back veteran starter Zack Greinke to start Friday against the A’s instead of Thursday at .Arizona.
“These guys, they know him quite well from playing with him,” Baker said of Greinke, who was traded to Houston from the D-backs a year ago. “The Oakland team is predominantly right-handed, and we figured Greinke will pitch well against both, but we need him in the game against Oakland.”
James reported late to Summer Camp following the birth of his daughter, but he had been throwing enough to build up his arm strength with the help of a pitcher’s mound installed in his backyard in Florida. Still, Baker said reporting late might have contributed to his control problems.
“It’s different throwing in a controlled environment versus when you’re on your own,” Baker said. “That hurt him big-time. You could tell he had worked because he was up to a whole bunch of pitches unlike everybody else, but I think it hurt him in the long run.”
Baker said James could return to the rotation if the Astros decide to go to six starters during a stretch of 17 games without a day off, Aug. 14-30.
Bielak, the Astros’ No. 13-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, has worked two games in relief this year in his Major League debut, allowing one earned run and four hits in 5 1/3 innings. He went a combined 11-4 with a 4.22 ERA in 23 games (20 starts) and two Minor League levels last year.
“I liked him from the beginning,” Baker said of Bielak. “He hasn’t disappointed. He throws strikes, he mixes his pitches well, he has a good delivery, he doesn’t tip his pitches. You can tell he’s been taught well by someone along the way and got advanced training when he got here.”