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Verlander, Keuchel steer Astros' deep rotation

McCullers, Morton and McHugh offer plenty of upside
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

HOUSTON -- Who can forget Astros third baseman Alex Bregman shouting in excited disbelief in the clubhouse following Game 7 of the World Series last year upon realizing the club had veteran right-hander Justin Verlander under contract for two more seasons?

The trade for Verlander, which helped pushed Houston over the top for its first World Series championship, paid immediate dividends, and he'll enter 2018 anchoring a deep rotation. Lefty Dallas Keuchel and righty Lance McCullers Jr. were both All-Stars last year, though they missed significant time with injuries.

HOUSTON -- Who can forget Astros third baseman Alex Bregman shouting in excited disbelief in the clubhouse following Game 7 of the World Series last year upon realizing the club had veteran right-hander Justin Verlander under contract for two more seasons?

The trade for Verlander, which helped pushed Houston over the top for its first World Series championship, paid immediate dividends, and he'll enter 2018 anchoring a deep rotation. Lefty Dallas Keuchel and righty Lance McCullers Jr. were both All-Stars last year, though they missed significant time with injuries.

Charlie Morton, who won two Game 7s in the postseason, had the best season of his career at age 33, and Collin McHugh was solid after missing the first 3 1/2 months. If Brad Peacock doesn't get moved to the bullpen, he provides quality depth.

Video: Morton discusses his motivation in the World Series

ROTATION IF SEASON STARTED TODAY
Justin Verlander, RHP
Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Lance McCullers, RHP
Charlie Morton, RHP
Collin McHugh, RHP

STRENGTH
There's depth and experience. Verlander, of course, has an American League Cy Young Award and an AL Most Valuable Player Award to his name, and he pitched terrific in the second half last year, before and after he was acquired from the Tigers. He brings the kind of veteran leadership and experience great teams need.

Keuchel, who turned 30 on New Year's Day, has matured as a pitcher and a leader, and he has shown he's among the best lefties in the game when he's healthy. McCullers, who started Game 7 of the World Series, has the kind of stuff to dominate, and Morton's metamorphosis into a 98-mph thrower with a tremendous breaking ball was one of the team's best storylines from 2017.

Video: McTaggart discusses Keuchel's future with Astros

Even at the bottom of the rotation, the Astros have solid options. McHugh is a proven winner who's looking for a healthy season, and Peacock was last year's breakout star for the champs and could be ready to join the rotation full-time if he's not used in relief.

QUESTION MARK
Health will be the biggest key going forward. Verlander is a proven workhorse who's made at least 30 starts in 11 of his past 12 seasons, but he will be 35 on Opening Day. Keuchel missed nearly eight weeks last year with two stints on the DL due to neck problem, and he battled arm trouble in 2016, the year after he won the AL Cy Young Award.

McCullers hasn't started more than 22 games in any of his three seasons and last year started only three games in the regular season after Aug. 1 because of a back issue. He was healthy in the postseason, though. Morton has a long injury history, which included missing nearly four weeks last year with a strained lat.

McHugh missed the first 3 1/2 months last year with a posterior impingement in his right elbow, and Peacock also has a long injury history, though he was finally healthy last year.

WHAT MIGHT CHANGE
A trade between the Astros and the Pirates involving Pittsburgh right-hander Gerrit Cole was "imminent," sources told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi on Wednesday. Astros owner Jim Crane said earlier in the week that his club was pursuing a high-end starter via trade or free agency.

It's hard to imagine the Astros would pay up for free agents Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish, the latter of whom Houston punished in the World Series. It's no secret that manager A.J. Hinch has a good relationship with Rays starter Chris Archer, who could be added via a trade.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Lance McCullers Jr., Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Justin Verlander