2014 Astros starting rotation: Who makes the cut?

USA TODAY Sports

With the Astros pitchers and catchers reporting in 13 days, let's take a look at who will most likely start the 2014 season as part of the starting rotation.

In September and October of the 2013 regular season, the Houston Astros starting pitchers were 17th in Major League Baseball with a 3.91 FIP (fielding-independent pitching). Hey, that's almost middle of the pack! A small-sample size, yes, but the latter stages of 2013 were certainly better than the 4.42 FIP posted for the entire season.

Many of those late season components are back, but none are proven and the 2014 spring training competition could go at least 10 arms deep with the rotation picture likely remaining unclear for most of March. The players mentioned as possible rotation candidates here are from the current 40-man roster only. Then from that list, Matt Albers, Kevin Chapman, Jose Cisnero, Jesse Crain, Luis Cruz, Darin Downs, Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Chad Qualls, Raul Valdes and Josh Zeid were eliminated from any starting rotation contention.

That leaves us with 12 pitchers who have even the smallest chance of making the Astros starting rotation to begin the 2014 season. The Astros coaching staff and front office likely have a smaller list of rotation possible pitchers, but let's have some fun.

Note: No math equations were used in creating the percentage chances for each pitcher.

The Shoo-In - Scott Feldman

Happy early birthday to Mr. Feldman, who will turn 31 years old on Friday, as he gets ready for Spring Training with a 3-year, $30 million dollar deal that he signed with the Astros earlier this offseason. Feldman has been a 2+ WAR pitcher the last two seasons, who should at the very least be able to eat up innings. The former Rangers hurler won't strike out many people, but it is encouraging to see that he posted a career-best 49.2 groundball percentage in 2013. Partially because of the money, but mostly because he's had MLB success makes Feldman the only pitcher on Houston's roster who definitely has a spot in the starting rotation.

Percentage chance of making the 2014 Opening Day starting rotation: 99.9 percent

The Regression Candidate (via @MDavidColeman) - Jarred Cosart

Hey Astros fans, stop me if you've heard this before: "Jarred Cosart is going to reg-" Yeah, you know the story. Even Jarred himself has had enough of the regression talk.

Astros fans can only hope the chip on his shoulder helps the young righty pitch like he did in 2013.

Cosart almost has to regress from the 1.95 ERA he had in 10 starts last year. Well, anything's possible and it would be awesome if he had a sub 2.00 ERA in his first ten starts of this year, but it's unlikely. Cosart's 4.35 FIP illustrates the more realistic picture of a pitcher who walked (35) more batters than he struck out (33). Still, it's hard to ignore how well he pitched through trouble in 2013 as he stranded a staggering 85.9 percent of runners he allowed to reach base. The name of the game is still not to allow runners to cross home. Cosart would have to pitch pretty poorly in the spring to miss the rotation.

Percentage chance of making the 2014 Opening Day starting rotation: 85 percent

The Lesser-Discussed Regression Candidate - Brett Oberholtzer

Like Cosart, Oberholtzer was outstanding in his 10 starts as a member of the Astros in 2013. His 2.24 ERA, again like Cosart, was impressive despite not striking out many people (5.64 per nine innings).

And that's where the comparisons stop.

Oberholtzer went about his starts by attacking the strike zone, throwing more than twice as many strikes than balls in a little over 1,000 MLB pitches thrown last season. He won't blow you away and his groundball rate at the Major League level, 35.9 percent, won't exactly have you jumping for joy either.

Helping Obie's case is that he's left-handed and if he's going to walk less than two guys per nine innings, Astros fans will enjoy watching him pitch more than others on this staff (We'll get to you later, Lucas Harrell).

Percentage chance of making the 2014 Opening Day starting rotation: 85 percent

Don't You Dare Forget About Me, Tags - Dallas Keuchel

Also known as: The Sleeper

Don't worry, Dallas, TCB hasn't forgotten about you. Actually, Keuchel has been mentioned so many times as a sleeper during internal discussion with TCB that we would be pretty darn disappointed if the lefty doesn't put together a good season.

Simply stated, it appears that it's about time for Keuchel's efforts to turn into pleasing standard numbers. The 26-year old has a career 5.20 MLB ERA in 38 starts, but his 2013 was encouraging. He was very reliable, tying with Harrell to lead the Astros in innings pitched. Keuchel induces groundballs at a solid rate, while also throwing a lot of strikes which led to his xFIP (3.58) looking a lot different than his ERA (5.15) in 2013. Like many Astros pitchers, you'd like for him to strike more guys out, but he does have good control and should be reliable again in 2014.

Percentage chance of making the 2014 Opening Day starting rotation: 80 percent

Here To Stay - Brad Peacock

Many people, including myself, forgot that Mr. Peacock actually made the starting rotation to start the 2013 season. Which makes him one of two pitchers on this year's Astros who accomplished that feat. (Hold on, Harrell! We're getting to you!). Of course, the results were disastrous and he was sent down to AAA where he apparently learned a slider, or at least got better at the one he already had. Anyway, his time in the minors appeared to help as he returned to the majors with 10 strikeouts in seven innings in his first start back.

He kept that momentum going as he struck out 54 batters in 54.1 innings following his recall. The key for Peacock is to avoid the gopher ball. The righty allowed 15 of them in only 83.1 innings as a Major Leaguer in 2013. Peacock is beginning to show once again why he was such a highly regarded prospect three years ago in the Nationals' system, but this is a big season for the pitcher who turned 26 this past Saturday. Happy birthday, Brad!

Percentage chance of making the 2014 Opening Day starting rotation: 75 percent

The Wild Card - Asher Wojciechowski

It was mildly surprising that Wojo didn't pitch for the Astros in September of last season, but a rough August with AAA Oklahoma City likely was a major influence on the Astros ending the 6'4" righty's season. Like Peacock, Wojo isn't getting any younger. The Citadel product turned 25 in December and will certainly pitch for the Astros this season. It's just a matter of when.

The Astros have plenty of pitch-to-contact pitchers and Wojo is no different. Control and changing speeds are his calling cards, and as evidenced by the .268 batting average on balls in play in AAA last year, Wojo can at least induce some weak contact. Regression could also becoming for him, even at the AAA level, but he still has a real chance of making the rotation.

It seems likely Wojciechowski will start in AAA, but with a great spring coupled with the stumbling of some favorites listed above and we could see a little Wojo in early April.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 30 percent

Mr. Bounce Back - Lucas Harrell

Finally, Harrell, we get to you. Harrell has the most to gain with new pitching coach, Brent Strom. That's partly because it can only really go up for Harrell after his 2013 season. And really, his impressive 2012 rookie season is the likely reason he is still an Astro. How can he get back to his 2012 form?

Well first, bring the walks down. He went from 3.62 per nine innings up to 5.15 per nine in just one year's time. Harrell's groundball rate also dropped drastically from 57.2 percent down to 51.5. An attitude adjustment could also be in order as Harrell made it pretty clear that he does not like pitching out of the bullpen. Does he get one more chance? The chances could be higher than many people think.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 35 percent

The Long Reliever - Paul Clemens

Also known as: The Legend

Clemens does have 73.1 innings of MLB experience, including a couple solid starts to end the season. There just isn't a whole lot of excitement surrounding Clemens' 5.40 ERA and 5.69 FIP from a year ago. He doesn't strike out many batters, allows home runs too often and has uninspiring control.

With the already muddled pitching staff, Clemens could be ruled expendable after a rough spring.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 10 percent

The Forgotten - Rudy Owens

Not by lack of talent, but more by lack of opportunity in 2013. The lefty threw only 17 innings in April before having surgery on a stress fracture in his left that cost him the rest of the season. But the 2013 year itself was not all for naught as Owens headed to the Dominican Republic for winter ball where he impressed.

The Chandler-Gilbert Community College product lasted only 3.2 innings while allowing six earned runs in his first Dominican League start. From there on, Owens did not allow more than two runs in any of his next nine starts to finish with a 2.68 ERA in 53.2 innings. The odds have to be low for Owens mostly due to lack of mound time in AAA during 2013, but Owens has already thrown 180 innings at the minor league's highest level is his time with the Astros' and Pirates' organizations. He'll make a start for the 2014 Astros, just not right away.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 10 percent

The Comeback Kid - Alex White

Also known as: The Token TJ Surgery Undergoer

The former top 100 prospect will be just about a year removed from Tommy John surgery when the 2014 season gets started. What he lacks in momentum, he does make up for with MLB experience in this competition. White has thrown the fifth-most career innings among the potential starting pitchers in 2013 with 149.1 innings pitched.

Geez, maybe I shouldn't have looked that up. This potential rotation is ridiculously inexperienced.

Back to White. He carries a career 6.03 ERA at the Major League level with all but 15 innings coming with the Colorado Rockies. As you the informed reader likely knows, pitching for the Rockies isn't wonderful for your statistics. White is right up the Luhnow Alley as he thrives on keeping the ball on the ground. White will rely heavily on his splitter to get outs. White could be a long reliever for the 'Stros or he could head to OKC to get some starts at the AAA level before getting a shot at the MLB level once again.

Experience does help his case, though.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 5 percent

The Blogger - Collin McHugh

McHugh is a MLB-caliber pitcher, which means he's definitely better at pitching than everyone at TCB. Well, it turns out that McHugh is better than us at writing too! If you haven't checked out McHugh's blog, do it now. And after reading a couple posts, he quickly becomes a guy you root for - a down to Earth guy who is chasing his dream.

Unfortunately for McHugh, the road hasn't been smooth thus far. The 26-year old has made nine MLB starts over the past two seasons and has lost eight of them with an 8.94 ERA. He allowed 11 home runs in 47.1 innings that all came with the New York Mets. McHugh's most notable blog post discussed his discomfort with not being able to settle down anywhere due to being called up and down regularly. Unfortunately for McHugh, the future is far from clear with Houston. Talent-wise, he is on par with much of the current Astros' roster, but there are plenty of arms progressing quickly.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 5 percent

2011 Version Needed - Anthony Bass

Bass posted an impressive 1.68 ERA in 48.1 innings with the San Diego Padres in 2011, but his 4.62 xFIP predicted regression. The regression happened.

A 4.73 ERA in 97 innings (15 starts) in 2012 was followed by 5.36 ERA in 42 innings exclusively as a reliever in 2013. Astros fans should be informed of Bass' last two seasons as an example of what could happen with Cosart.

The Astros will roll the dice with Bass and see what happens, but it appears he will be destined for the bullpen.

Percentage chance of making the Opening Day starting rotation: 5 percent

The beautiful thing for all of these candidates is that on a rebuilding team many guys get a chance to prove themselves. In 2012, 10 different pitchers made starts for the Astros. Ideally, the five that get the season started keep their spots due to good performance. But that's just not likely. Is it April yet?

Statistics courtesy of fangraphs.com and mlb.com.

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