When Chris Devenski was announced as the player to be named later that was acquired to complete the trade of Brett Myers to the White Sox, well, it was far from a heralded addition. Devenski had a bit of gas in the tank, but was a college reliever, a 25th round pick, and at the time was posting a 4.59 FIP for Chicago's Class-A Minor League club.
After five solid starts in 2012 with the Class-A affiliate of the Astros, Devenski mostly struggled as he worked his way through Houston's farm system, his FIP and peripherals varying widely, and mostly below Double-A. He was quickly forgotten by the few who really knew his name in the first place. At no point did he appear on any major publication's top Astros prospects list or even garner much of a mention anywhere.
At last, in 2015, Devenski appeared to find an answer. Working largely as a starter, he posted a 3.01 ERA for the Corpus Christi Hooks in 119.2 innings of work. Yet it was still mostly unnoticed; the Astros did not add him to the 40-man roster, and no team took a flyer on him in the Rule 5 draft.
It came as something of a surprise, then, when Houston did add him to the 40-man roster and called him up on April 7 of the 2016 season. Devenski made his MLB debut the next day, tossing three shutout frames against the Brewers and raising some eyebrows in the process. After allowing just one earned run over his first 13.2 innings in The Show, the Astros rewarded him in their time of starting pitching need by giving him four consecutive starts. He posted a 2.55 ERA during the first three before a six-run stinker in Boston (the League's best offense at that point in the season) saw him placed back in the bullpen.
Aside from a spot start on August 11 (in which he tossed five shutout frames during the nightcap of a double-header in Minnesota), Devenski worked exclusively out of the Astros' bullpen for the remainder of the season, quickly establishing himself as one of the team's most valuable hurlers. Not only did he dominate, but his pedigree as a starter allowed him to frequently work more than just one inning; Devenski worked 83.2 innings in his 43 relief appearances, an average of roughly two innings per outing. He recorded six or more outs in 20 of those 43 appearances, and nine of those appearances were for three or more innings.
It was a stunning breakout performance. Baseball Reference ranks Devenski as the Astros' most valuable pitcher of 2016 with 2.8 WAR; Fangraphs also assigns him 2.8 WAR, second by their reckoning to Collin McHugh's 3.0 WAR. If someone had predicted that 25th-round nobody Devenski would, in his rookie season, out-perform reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, they'd have been mocked roundly. Baseball is amazing that way at times.
This leaves the Astros with an unexpected source of value heading into 2017, but a big question as to how best to use it. There are three obvious options.
Keep Him in the Bullpen
Why fix what isn't broken? Devenski posted a 1.61 ERA during his relief appearances, notably better than the second-best mark of 2.25 set by Will Harris, and having that level of dominance for 2-3 innings at a time available out of the pen is a huge boost to the effectiveness of the entire pitching staff. Devenski has already found success in this role, and Fangraphs, by one measure, saw him as the best non-closing reliever in all of baseball last season. Even if his dominance were to wane some in his sophomore campaign, the ability to work those multiple innings may very well make up for it, allowing A.J. Hinch to pull a struggling starter earlier before the damage gets out of hand.
Move Him to the Rotation
The Astros' rotation had some big issues in 2016, and is likely the single biggest reason the club missed the playoffs. Only four players accrued at least 100 innings, and none of them hit 200 innings. Those four 100+ inning starters posted ERAs ranging from McHugh's 4.34 to Doug Fister's 4.64. Keuchel's fall from Cy Young grace was well documented. Lance McCullers, the best starter on the club (3.00 FIP) suffered multiple injuries and ended up working just 81 innings in 14 starts. While Joe Musgrove showed promise near the end of the season, he's young and counting on him for a full season is certainly a risk. Devenski posted a 3.07 FIP in his five starts, meaning that metric had him pegged as just as a good as McCullers in a small sample. Starting pitching is scarce and will command a huge acquisition cost this off-season; Devenski could potentially be a great answer to the Astros' biggest question.
He is, after all, a 25th-round pick. His fastball plays up in relief, but it's mediocre as a starter. His change-up is great, but right-handed pitchers usually need a good breaking ball to really be effective starters, and his is still a work in progress. And really, how many guys come up, have some initial success, and then collapse? The fact is that there's a very real chance that Devenski's value will never be higher than it is right now, and other teams out there could be salivating at the thought of landing a young, super cheap, super controllable #3 starter in this pitching-starved market. If the Astros don't believe he's a starter long-term and some other team does, Houston could stand to reap a substantial reward for what may turn out to be the loss of a solid, but replaceable, reliever.