The Crawfish Boil: Astros Upper Level Pitching Depth

Al Messerschmidt

The depth of starting pitchers has reached a level that Astros fans are not familiar with in the minor leagues. Although, a large portion are fighting for spots in AAA, how do you handle it?

Welcome to a new series that Sean (native_astro) and I will be putting together that will focus on breaking down some of the big stories that are going on in the minor leagues.

For our first topic, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the starting pitching situation in the upper minors. It's no secret that Jeff Luhnow has targeted starting pitchers in trades they've primarily been in the A+/AA range. Well this year, those pitchers along with what the system already had is now pushing for rotation spots in AAA and AA. Luhnow has already said that they have considered six-man rotations early on as well as starters piggy-backing each other as he did during his time in St. Louis. He says the pitchers will still get their innings that each needs for their development.

Brooks

With that said, Sean what do you think about that kind of set-up and do you prefer that over picking the best 5-6 starters for each level and pushing the rest to the pen? I would think this could really limit development in the upper minors personally since starters will be limited to five or so innings so the next starter can still get in some innings.

Sean

For the most part I'm not a fan of the piggy backing starters in the minors. The only time that the piggy backing method should really be used unless is during the developmental league, spring training, or as part of a rehab throwing program.

The six man rotation is kind of a continuation of this though process in order to stretch young pitchers out, but at the same time get them some innings on a regular throwing program.

As you progress higher in the minors, the rotation really needs to be set to five starters rather than six starters in order to get starters on a consistent throwing program that matches. With that said, you're always going to have exceptions and there are opportunities to get guys a spot start here or there or even designate a reliever as a spot starter or the "swing man."

The Oklahoma City rotation should be interesting this year and should have a mixture of prospects and players with service time such as Jarred Cosart, Ross Seaton, Brett Oberholtzer, Jose Cisnero, Dallas Keuchel, Paul Clemens, Brad Peacock, Rudy Owens, and Jon Ely.
That doesn't even factor in guys such as Jordan Lyles or Alex White that could get pushed out of the rotation by a veteran such as Phil Humber or Erik Bedard.

This roster depth will allow the Astros to be flexible and patient with their prospects in that they won't have to rush a pitcher such as Cosart and hope that he finds his command to go with his electric stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if the Astros use some of this pitching depth to fill a need through a trade or rotation protection for a Bud Norris trade.

Brooks

I have to say I agree with you. I'm struggling to buy into what Luhnow has said about still getting their innings. I can get the 6 man rotation, although I prefer five. The piggybacking, not so much. Since one pitcher gets five innings and the other gets four. That's not a problem for Cosart since he pitches only five innings anyway since he can't control his stuff and runs pitch counts up. But, for guys like John Ely and Rudy Owens who get a lot of their value by pitching deep are extremely limited.

With that said, sticking to a five man rotation creates the problem of selling short on some of these guys upside by sticking them in the bullpen or forcing them back to AA. You name 11 guys that could be in AAA. ELEVEN! And every single one can make a case for being in the rotation. I highly doubt Lyles goes back to AAA so we're really down to 10 and including Alex White with the first nine. How do handle that situation?

Presumably, you have a five man rotation with one or two just waiting to be a long man and pitch deep. Do the rest go to the pen? I'm ok with sending Jose Cisnero to bullpen but I'm not ready to give up on the others as starters. And with that, I'm not giving up on Cisnero, but just buying into that he profiles as a reliever. I know a lot of fans will jump to Clemens, but he's pitching 96-97 this spring and his breaking ball is on, so I'd like to keep him as a starter.

I'm not going to rule out that this depth is protection for a trade because I know it is. Bud is possibly gone even before ST is out. It's also for injury protection so we don't have to rely on Armando Gallaraga to come save the day at some point in the season. But, this depth is a little over-whelming and difficult to figure out. I like it on the surface but I just don't see an ideal way to handle it. How would you set it up exactly?

Sean

I think that's the million dollar question. What do the Astros do with their pitching depth?

What makes this difficult is that the Astros have never really been advocates for changing a players value by position change. If the Astros believe that a starters value is going to be higher as a starter then their more likely to keep that players as a starter rather than make the position change transition that might fill a short term need.

With that said, how does this affect the Astros and their young starters? I think that's its likely that Bud Norris could be moved in a trade prior to the start of the season, but I could also see a scenario where the Astros take a gamble and hold onto Norris going into the trade deadline where teams are more likely to meet higher asking prices. This goes back to our discussion about the Astros being in a great opportunity to be flexible with their roster and in this case their rotation.

I think from the Astros standpoint, they'll look at the roster and analyze to see what configuration will provide the Astros with the most returned value for that fits their long term goal. Bud Norris, as stated could get moved before the season or leading up to the trade deadline. It really depends on who will be willing to meet the Astros asking price. That's why I think guys like Erik Bedard and Phil Humber are extremely valuable to this roster configuration in that they will be valued as trade pieces during the trade deadline. Maybe not as pieces that will bring back a blockbuster package, but pieces non the less. If anyone is able to turn something into nothing it's Jeff Luhnow. I mean Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen for half a year of Carlos Lee?

I think for the most part, Lucas Harrell is likely going to be the Astros opening day starter. What happens with the #2 spot in the rotation? I think that we're likely looking at two different rotation tracks. One track that has Bud Norris in the rotation and one track that does not. If Bud Norris is traded, Phil Humber would likely step into the #2 spot in the rotation. I agree that Lyles will step into the 3 or 4 unless the Astros want to give him additional time at OKC and simply promote him when Humber and Bedard are moved. Why is this relevant to the minor league pitching depth? I'm glad you asked. Depending on how many spots are available for the rotation should determine what kind of log jam is going to occur at OKC.

Now that I think about it, the Astros rotation kind of reminds me of a Rubik's Cube in that the Astros have multiple paths that they may take in order to get to their long term goal.

I really think that the Astros are going to take the route that brings back the biggest return.

Here's what I think the rotation will look like.
Astros
1. Lucas Harrell
2. Phil Humber
3. Alex White
4. Jon Ely
5. Erik Bedard

Trade: Bud Norris to....?

Oklahoma City

1. Jordan Lyles
2. Brad Peacock
3. Jarred Cosart
4. Brett Oberholtzer
5. Rudy Owens
Trade Candidate: Dallas Keuchel

In this scenario, Paul Clemens, Jose Cisnero, and Ross Seaton will likely start the year at Corpus Christi until spots becomes available at OKC.

After mapping it out, I'm not even buying this roster configuration. There just too much depth for the spots available. I think that we can both agree that Bud Norris could get move prior to spring and Lyles may or may not start the year in the rotation, but is it likely that the Astros could move another starter such as Phil Humber or even Lucas Harrell prior to the start of the season? They could fill a need by acquiring prospects and going out and signing another FA "trade chip"
such as a Chien-Ming Wang who threw the ball very well during the WBC and induced a lot of ground ball outs.

My head is hurting now trying to think about the multiple scenarios that the Astros could use for the rotation.

How do you see this playing out? It's hard to identify a wrong answer in these scenarios because the Astros could go in so many different directions that fit their long term plan.

Brooks

There really isn't a wrong answer with this and I'm sure Luhnow and Co. are looking around right now trying to figure it out. I doubt they really sacrifice any of these guys potential value by shoving them to the pen except for possibly Jose Cisnero. I definitely see Norris at some point being involved in a trade, whether that's in the spring or in the summer, I don't know. But, as I discussed several times with Tim on our ST trip, I think Lyles has been all but guaranteed a spot and discussed on our podcast from Kissimmee.

Where I think this scenario is likely to play out is that they were insistent on having one long-reliever and now have even discussed having TWO long relievers. I think that gives Bedard the chance to start with Humber, Lyles, Norris, and Harrell. Then you have John Ely and/or Alex White making the roster as long relievers. Those guys just move into rotation spots as Norris/Humber/Bedard get moved. So now we are down eight guys fighting for spots in the five man rotation in OKC.

With that, you can have Cosart, ObieHockey, Owens, Keuchel, and Peacock in the rotation with Clemens, Cisnero, and Seaton fighting for a probable long man spot or two and someone getting pushed to Corpus or the pen. I can see all three going back to Corpus and in reality, not a big deal and Cisnero could just move to the pen.

But, this is contingent upon them actually using two long relievers. Two is a lot, this team hasn't really had one since Brian Moehler (go ahead and shudder a bit), but I can buy it considering Bedard and Humber may not be reliable and of course Norris and Lyles have fallen apart around the fifth on several occasions. It would definitely give this team some flexibility on usage and be prepared when a trade undoubtedly happens.

Sean

I'm note sure that the Astros will expose the young starters to a long reliever role over a consistent throwing program. Rather than put Alex White and Jon Ely in the pen, the Astros could use Edgar Gonzalez in that role. Edgar Gonzalez has experience with being shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen during the season and can probably adapt to that in season transition. On the other hand, the Astros would probably wan Jon Ely and Alex White to be on a consistent throwing program rather than serving as a spot starter struggling to possibly get innings.

Then again, it's hard to really predict what the Astros will do in any scenario when it comes to constructing a roster.

Brooks

I can go along with that with Alex White. However, with Ely, he's already 26 and will be 27 in April and has pitched from the pen in six games at the major league level (yeah I know it's a small sample). Don't get me wrong, I like Ely and he really impressed me at the spring game I saw him pitch in, but I think his age limits a really high end upside. I think it's feasible to use him in a long reliever spot waiting his turn to claim as a rotation arm. But, it also allows for an even younger and more developing arm to pitch with less restrictions in AAA.

That and Edgar Gonzalez is a NRI and would require a 40 man roster move for him to be on the opening day roster.

Sean

The way Jon Ely is pitching this spring, the rotation vs. bullpen could be an irrelevant argument with him going to AAA.

The rotation could get some clarity this week with additional roster cuts to go along with Jarred Cosart, Ross Seaton and Brett Oberholtzer being optioned to minor league camps this week.

Brooks

There you have it. Keep in mind that our example scenario's don't even factor in many pitchers from AA last year who could be ready for AAA with guys like Asher Wojciechowski and Matthew Heidenreich. There truly is insane depth right now and while depth is always nice, is there such a thing as too much depth? Can it dampen development? Or does it force prospects to "Seize the day" so to speak when they receive their opportunities?

In summary, Sean and I aren't buying that piggy-backing is a good way to handle the depth. Do you? How do you feel about a 6-man rotation? Or, is Luhnow and Co. just setting themselves up for trades?

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