Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez will both be a part of what Astros fans hope to be a string of winning years to come. However, akin to the surprise of Houston's 2015 success is Velasquez and McCullers contributions to the campaign. The two have combined to throw 55.1 innings above A-ball, yet here they are helping the Astros win.
Unfortunately, there is more uncharted territory approaching. McCullers has already thrown 87.1 innings -- his career-high was 104.2 in 2013. Velasquez has thrown 58.1 frames, which is more than halfway to his career-most of 110 -- also in 2013. McCullers, 21, and Velasquez, 23, certainly will factor in to the Houston rotation for years to come, which begs the question: How hard should Houston push them this season while considering their arms for the future?
Well, we've already begun to find this answer out as Velasquez was optioned to AA Corpus Christi following his last start. He won't be pitching in a live game with the Hooks, and is expected to return to the Astros following the All-Star break. Essentially, he'll miss one start, but will receive plenty of rest because of it.
Expect more of the same to come down the line for both McCullers and Velasquez, but how exactly Houston manufactures said rest, if at all, remains to be seen. Today's Starting Nine:
How should the Astros handle Vince Velasquez and Lance McCullers' workload for the remainder of this season?
I like the idea of implementing 4 IP tandem starts for them. One kid throw 4 IP/75 pitches, the other relieve him and throw 4 IP/75 pitches, then switch the next start. Might worry about preparation for them, but they were each just recently doing the tandem thing in the minors, and there's no doubt it'd keep them (and the bullpen) fresher. Also would allow Feldman back into the rotation to eat innings and do his usual mediocre thing the rest of the way. Last three or four starts of the reg season, I'd move VV to long reliever and keep McCullers in the rotation to stretch him back out to go deeper in games, with VV as a security blanket for the playoffs if LMC struggles.
First, let's talk some numbers. (McCullers) hasn't ever gone above the 104.2 innings he posted with Quad Cities back in 2013, so it's definitely a concern. He's at 87.1 IP between the minors and Majors this year, for reference. I imagine they won't want him to exceed maybe 150 innings or so this year. He's averaged a hair over 5.2 innings per start in the Majors. So let's say you can have him throw another 65 innings, which would give him, at most, another 11 starts.
At that rate, they'd want to shut him down sometime in early September, at best, and maybe late August. One thing they could do is continue to use them as normal for the remainder of July. It almost seems a foregone conclusion that the Astros will be picking up a starter at the deadline, and Feldman is rehabbing now. Keuchel has his spot locked in, and I'm assuming they'll stick with McHugh through his struggles. The Feldman and then the new guy. So you'll really only have one slot come early August, if things play out. They could either do the straight-up tandem system they did in the minors, or they could have one of them start a couple of times while the other works out of the pen in short stints, and then flip those roles for the next two weeks and so on. I think I might prefer the latter option, as they'll continue to get opportunities to prove that they can be full-time, MLB starters along the way. Once October approaches, you'll have a decision to make anyway; do you want one, both, or neither in your playoff rotation?
I believe the Astros' front office will come up with a couple of phantom DL-stints for the both of them between now and October, and that's exactly how I would handle the situation.
The Astros should handle Vince Velasquez' workload by sending him back down to AA for a little bit, allowing Oberholtzer to get one start, and then by reading comments by Scott Boras at Evan Drellich's prompting that when taken out of context sound like they're complaining but really are pretty irrelevant after all.
As for McCullers, I trust Brent Strom and the Astros' FO's knowledge of pitcher mechanics and injury risk way more than I trust the Verducci effect. I think McCullers stays in the rotation all year, but that they often take advantage of scheduling, days off, available call-ups like Oberholtzer, and Fauxsto Hernandez' flexibility to pitch him on a week's rest instead of 4 days rest.
It's not like the Astros are the first team to face this problem. (Although the Astros are unusual as a contender in relying on two good starters of their age and experience.) It seems like a long time ago when the Yankees instituted the controversial "Joba Rules" for taking Joba Chamberlain out of the rotation and putting him in the pen for awhile. We remember the controversy over Strasburg. We have the Cardinals' example of shutting young pitchers down or moving them to the bullpen, so that they are available in the playoffs. And, none of these measures are a clear answer to the problem—but it's a small sample, so maybe we shouldn't expect a clear answer. Innings limitations are just a rough guide. Most pitching coaches recognize that some types of innings (e.g., large number of pitches in the inning or stress-filled inning due to situation) are a more negative factor in terms of fatigue. (The 40+ pitch inning by Velasquez is concerning, for that reason.) Perhaps the Astros should consider moving McCullers and/or Velasquez into a relief role at some point during the season. But that may not be the right answer if the reduced innings come with a trade off of facing much more stressful high leverage situations. The Astros are so analytical that I've got to put my trust in their answer to this question—particularly when so much is unknown about the effects of usage on arm health. If I'm planning it, I suppose a period of time may come when Velasquez and McCullers alternate in a starter role, resting in the bullpen as an emergency arm in between. But, that's just an idea.