Blanco’s peculiar move gives Astros viable rotation option
JUPITER, Fla. -- There aren’t many position battles this spring in Astros camp, where the 2022 World Series champions are counting on many returning regulars in their attempt to defend their title. But that doesn’t mean certain individuals aren’t emerging with a chance to contribute in a big way in '23.
Take, for example, right-hander Ronel Blanco, whose transition into a starter continued swimmingly in Thursday’s 3-0 win over the Cardinals at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Stretching out to 50 pitches (35 strikes) across 3 1/3 scoreless innings, Blanco struck out five in his first Grapefruit League start as part of the Astros’ search for in-house rotation depth.
Through five appearances this spring, Blanco owns a 0.82 ERA and 14 strikeouts across 11 innings.
“[The opportunity to start] definitely took me by surprise, but it's something I’ve adjusted to mentally,” Blanco said through a team translator. “The focus has been to stay inside the strike zone and be able to execute my pitches there.”
Even after losing Justin Verlander to free agency, the Astros project to have one of the most complete starting rotations in baseball, with Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier leading a group that also consists of José Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown, Houston’s No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Beyond that, though, the picture gets murkier, especially with Lance McCullers Jr. on the shelf with a right elbow strain that will sideline him past Opening Day.
Behind that group is Brandon Bielak, who is likely to begin the year at Triple-A Sugar Land. And then … question marks. No. 25 prospect Shawn Dubin and No. 21 prospect Forrest Whitley are on the 40-man roster with no prior big league experience, and J.P. France, who was added to the 40-man roster in November, is behind schedule this spring with an unspecified injury.
The Astros know they’ll need more depth, especially in a time when even the best teams utilize more than five starters over the course of a long season (Houston used eight in 2022; every team in the Majors used at least eight).
“We can afford to experiment, but for how long?” manager Dusty Baker said. “You have to find out during Spring Training here.”
In Blanco, the Astros see a potential solution. Though he’s been a traditional reliever the past four seasons, the 29-year-old has a starter’s background, having thrown 88 innings across 23 appearances (11 starts) as recently as 2017.
A late bloomer who signed as a 22-year-old in 2016, Blanco pitched to a 3.51 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings over the past two seasons in Triple-A, largely without a clear path to the big leagues. He debuted last April and went on to make eight big league appearances, then he arrived at camp this spring as a reliever before catching the eye of new Astros GM Dana Brown. When McCullers’ injury created the need for additional depth, the process to stretch Blanco out began.
“It was the organization’s decision to possibly make him a starter, out of possible need,” Baker said. “I’ve seen a few guys do it. Most guys go the other way.”
By way of example, Baker pointed to former 20-game winner Russ Ortiz, whom he managed in San Francisco. Ortiz closed games in college before morphing into a durable and successful big league starter, going 113-89 with a 4.51 ERA over 12 seasons (including one with Houston). The examples of starters transitioning to the 'pen, by comparison, are endless.
“A lot of it depends on your physical and mental strength, because when you’ve only got to go one inning or two innings, it’s a whole different outlook on things,” Baker said. “But when you have to go out there multiple innings and every inning is a new inning that could possibly control the outcome of the game, that’s a totally different animal. So that part we don’t know.”
So far, so good. Blanco’s fastball lived in the low-to-mid-90s on Thursday, and the natural extension he gets (94th percentile, per Statcast) should allow it to continue to play up. Starting also allows him to utilize both his slider and curveball in addition to his changeup, which shorter relief stints didn’t always permit. The plan is for Blanco to throw around 60 pitches next time out.
“I think he’s throwing well so far,” Brown recently told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart. “He’s building up the innings. We’ll keep doing it. As I said before, if it doesn’t work, we’re going to end up having a guy that can go multiple innings as opposed to just one. I think it’s a win-win situation with him. He could be a shot in the arm that we need, in terms of starting pitching depth. That’s what my hope is.”