Astros' rotation depth already being tested

February 22nd, 2023

HOUSTON -- The starting pitching depth that helped carry the Astros to the World Series championship last year will be tested at the onset of this season after veteran right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. revealed Wednesday that he suffered a small muscle strain to his elbow and won’t be ready for Opening Day.

McCullers hopes to return much sooner than he did last season, when he missed most of the year with a forearm strain before making eight starts in August and September (and three in the playoffs). Having already lost Justin Verlander in free agency, the Astros now have a clear-cut starting five, barring more injures:

LHP Framber Valdez (17-6, 2.82 ERA in 2022)
RHP Cristian Javier (11-9, 2.54 ERA)
RHP José Urquidy (13-8, 3.94 ERA)
RHP Luis Garcia (15-8, 3.72 ERA)
RHP Hunter Brown (No. 43-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline)

Valdez, Javier, Urquidy and Garcia all threw a respective career-high in innings in the regular season and playoffs last year, but Urquidy and Garcia were limited to bullpen roles in the postseason because the Astros had so many off-days and relied on four starters: Verlander, McCullers, Valdez and Javier. Brown, the team’s No. 1-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, appears poised to start the year in the rotation.

“I think everybody senses in the organization Hunter Brown has a chance to be big-time for us,” general manager Dana Brown said. “He knows it and feels it. When I saw him throw, I thought ‘Man, this guy’s got electric stuff. The ball’s coming out really good.’ The cutter he’s throwing is nasty. There’s a comfort with Brown in that he could take a step and log some innings this year. If everyone’s healthy, he could be the sixth man.”

Beyond that, Brown said Wednesday he’s hoping former top prospect Forrest Whitley can take a huge leap forward this year, as well, and put himself in the mix. Then there’s Brandon Bielak and prospects Shawn Dubin and J.P. France, who were added to the 40-man roster this winter. Brown said you can never have too much depth in the rotation.

“I’ve always said, because I came from Atlanta, you’ve got to have a lot of [pitching] depth,” he said. “Part of what happened to us last year towards the end is our guys were tired and run down. I love that [the Astros] did a six-man [rotation] here for a while. I think it stretches your guys out longer and they don’t get as many innings. [The Astros] were not limping to the finish line last year. I’m always trying to acquire depth, whether it’s by trade or in-house stuff.”

A name to keep an eye on is Whitley, who looked good in throwing live batting practice against a group of hitters Thursday, including Jose Altuve.

Whitley, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, is looking to re-establish himself after a checkered start to his pro career. He has thrown only 237 innings in his Minor League career thanks to a suspension, a pandemic and a series of injuries, including Tommy John surgery two years ago. After the 2020 season was lost because of COVID-19, he missed all of 2021 following elbow surgery.

“We’re hoping Whitley takes a jump this year,” Brown said. “It’s time for Whitley. I remember Whitley coming out of the Draft. Today I was watching him, and the ball looked like it was coming out pretty good. The slider looked pretty good. At some point, the kid’s going to have to take a jump, like [Spencer] Strider did for [Atlanta] last year.”

McCullers still hopes to throw 150, 160 innings for the Astros, which is probably a best-case scenario. Before McCullers got healthy last year, the Astros used a six-man rotation at times to help limit the innings of Verlander, who missed the 2021 season following Tommy John surgery. It paid dividends later in the year when Houston had a relatively rested staff.

“Ultimately, I think Lance is going to be fine,” Brown said. “I’m really optimistic about it.”