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Inbox: How will Astros' bullpen look in October?

Beat reporter Brian McTaggart answers questions from Houston fans
@brianmctaggart
August 5, 2019

HOUSTON -- What a week it was for the Astros. They made four trades Wednesday, including acquiring former American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, had three American League monthly awards in Yuli Gurriel (Player of the Month), Gerrit Cole (Pitcher of the Month) and Yordan Alvarez (Rookie of

HOUSTON -- What a week it was for the Astros. They made four trades Wednesday, including acquiring former American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, had three American League monthly awards in Yuli Gurriel (Player of the Month), Gerrit Cole (Pitcher of the Month) and Yordan Alvarez (Rookie of the Month) and threw a no-hitter on Saturday -- the same day the club had its inaugural Hall of Fame induction.

Entering Monday, the Astros had the best record in the AL at 73-40, which was just a half-game behind the Dodgers for best record in MLB. Greinke is set to make his Astros debut Tuesday against the Rockies. Things couldn't be better in the Astros’ world.

With the Trade Deadline in the past and the club clicking, let’s open the Inbox to see what’s on your mind:

I’m just going to focus on the pitching staff for brevity. The Astros carried seven relief pitchers for a best-of-five series in last year’s AL Division Series against the Indians and went to an eight-man bullpen for the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox. Remember, the roster can be changed after each round of the playoffs.

As far as this year is concerned, if the Astros carry a four-man rotation in the playoffs (Justin Verlander, Cole, Greinke and Wade Miley), there are 11 other pitchers -- all right-handers -- who would be under consideration for a bullpen spot, assuming everyone is healthy. I would say Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Will Harris, Joe Biagini and Brad Peacock would be locks, along with Aaron Sanchez, who’s currently the fifth starter. That’s leaves five pitchers vying one or two spots -- depending on how many relievers manager AJ Hinch wants to carry -- from among Chris Devenski, Joe Smith, Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh and Josh James.

The last couple of spots will come down to who’s pitching well and who the Astros face in the ALDS. Hinch left Rondon and Smith off the ALDS roster last year and added them for the ALCS. James’ 100-mph fastball earned him a playoff spot last year and that will be a consideration this year. Devenski has pitched better lately, throwing his changeup for strikes, and Smith has been solid after missing most of the year following Achilles surgery. McHugh brings length and experience.

After a two-game series against the Rockies on Tuesday and Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, followed by a day off Thursday, the Astros will play 17 consecutive days, beginning Friday with a 10-game road trip to Baltimore, Chicago and Oakland. Hinch is keeping his five-man rotation in line, meaning Miley, Sanchez and Verlander will pitch on a full week of rest this weekend in Baltimore, and Greinke and Cole will have five days of rest when they face the White Sox next week because of the off-days.

When it comes to position players, we’ll continue to see Hinch give his regulars periodic days off. Michael Brantley was out of the lineup Sunday. Hinch’s “these are men, not machines” mantra is barked more so with October in mind. Sure, the Astros are chasing the best record in the Majors, but Hinch will continue to give his regulars the rest he feels they need to be ready for the playoffs. On Friday, the Astros started Jake Marisnick (over Josh Reddick), Aledmys Diaz (over Gurriel) and Martin Maldonado (over Robinson Chirinos) and they all homered.

I do think Kyle Tucker, the Astros’ top prospect per MLB Pipeline, will get a September promotion when Triple-A Round Rock’s season is over. It won’t be about trying to prove himself other than the Astros rewarding him after spending all season at Triple-A and getting a taste of the big leagues last year. I don’t envision much playing time unless Reddick continues to struggle, in which case the Astros could be motivated to give Tucker some more at-bats. The better the plays, the more he’ll play in that case.

Tucker’s had an up-and-down season at the plate. He posted a woeful .599 OPS in April before lighting it up in May (1.169 OPS) and June (1.103) and slumping again in July (.681). He’s 6-for-17 through his first four games in August. I don’t expect him to get much meaningful time at first base.

The Astros are currently carrying seven relievers and will go back to eight relievers, which could happen as soon as this week. Pressly could be activated from the injured list later this week and Peacock might not be too far behind him. I don’t think we’ll see James until September, which will mean rosters are expanded anyway. You’re right in saying Garrett Stubbs will be optioned, but that still means one of the current relievers would have be taken off the active roster. Among those candidates are Rondon, McHugh and Devenski, who could be optioned to Triple-A.

Hinch was asked this last week and called it a “time share,” though I expect Chirinos might get the majority of the starts. He’s caught every one of Verlander’s starts this year so that will continue in the playoffs. Chirinos has caught the majority of Cole’s starts as well, though Maldonado caught him Thursday with Chirinos out with a sore shoulder. Maldonado has the ability to neutralize opposing baserunners with his arm, which could be key in the playoffs depending on matchups. The Astros are comfortable with either one behind the plate.

Peacock threw two innings in his rehab outing Saturday at Round Rock and the Astros don’t plan to stretch him out much beyond that, which means he’s likely headed for the bullpen when he returns to the active roster. Sanchez, who threw six no-hit innings Saturday, will get the ball this weekend in Baltimore and will be looking to build upon his impressive debut in Houston. I expect him to remain the fifth starter as long as he’s effective and healthy.

That will be a problem the Astros would love to have. That’s a long way down the road, but certainly a valid question considering the Astros are the team to beat in the AL. If the Astros get home-field advantage in the World Series -- they’d have to finish with a better record than their NL counterpart, i.e., the Dodgers -- they would play three games in an NL park at the most, which means no designated hitter. Hinch started Alvarez once in the outfield in a three-game series in St. Louis last week and twice in the outfield in Cincinnati in mid-June. He does value the tremendous defense of Marisnick, but it would be hard to keep Alvarez out of the lineup.

An issue to watch moving forward will be Alvarez’s knees. He crumpled to the ground Sunday when he fouled a ball off his right knee (before getting up and hitting a 400-foot sac fly using nothing but his upper half). He fouled a ball off his left knee in late June and was hobbled, making it hard for Hinch to put him in the outfield because he wasn’t moving well.

Marisnick was able to take part in all the pregame routines, including stretching, catch and batting practice, but wasn’t able to be where the players were when the game started. That includes the clubhouse. Marisnick watched the game from the team’s hotel in downtown Cleveland when he served his suspension Tuesday and Wednesday for his July collision with then-Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

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