We’ve known since the spring that Keuchel and Morton were in their walk years. Both posted impressive seasons and both are free agents. We also knew that Lance McCullers would always be a CY Young dark horse, as long as he posted ridiculous peripherals before ever putting it together for a full season. Now we know that he’s a huge question mark going into 2019. How does this fact change Luhnow’s thinking, given that at the All-Star break he had made all of his starts and looked ready to set season records in every counting stat?
Before one says, “but LMJ is always injured,” let’s look at the facts. Since coming up in May of 2015, LMJ has made 80 starts, and in three of his four seasons, he’s made exactly 22 starts. That’s almost 14% of the starts a team needs for a season (quick math: if five starters make 20% of the starts you need, you only need five starters). So Lance has been a reliable contributor, if not a workhorse. And he’s also been really good, posting 10.2 Fangraphs WAR, a FIP of 3.24, and an xFIP of 3.31 over those 80 starts + a few relief stints.
How do the Astros plan for 2019 knowing that LMJ’s 22 starts and 2.5 WAR can’t be counted on? After all, the only time in the last four years they didn’t get 22 starts from LMJ, they also failed to make the playoffs. Where to find both the innings and the high-quality performance in those innings?
The most obvious move is to re-sign the guys you know and love. Yes, CFM and DK, as long as we’re going with initials. Both should be offered a QO, and while DK is a surefire lock to turn it down, CFM is not. But it seems like something in the range of 2/35 or 2/40 should lock up Morton in case he wants more than a year. Morton has put up 6.3 WAR over the past two seasons, in which he’s made 55 starts, but his previous career high in WAR was 1.6, and he’s turning 35 next month. I imagine he could get something like 3/55 from a team like the Yankees or Phillies, and he has family in Delaware, but he’s also thrived under Strom and seems wired differently from the average ballplayer.
But why would the Astros want Morton over Keuchel? Keuchel is four years younger and has been better, much better than CFM. And he’s more durable. Why throw money at another starter past 35 when you can spend it on a guy who’s contract will be done at 35? He probably wants something like 4/100. Would Luhnow do 3/75 to keep him? Does Luhnow take the pick and move on? What if the Yankees don’t jump early on DK?
The cheap internal options are known. Colin McHugh is wasted as a middle-leverage relief guy. Before his 2017 injury, he made 90 starts over 3 years and put up 9.9 WAR in that time. He made 5 million last year. Dude is good. And cheap. And reliable. Brad Peacock is more of a wild card but he had a great year before tailing off. His xFIP was 2.82 and his ERA and FIP were 3.46/3.47. He struck out 13.3/9. That was 7th in MLB for guys with 60IP or more. Above Peacock were, in order: Hader, Betances, Diaz, Barnes, Kimbrel, and Sale. Only two of those guys posted a lower walk rate than Peacock. One was Diaz. I’m not saying who the other was, but he likes cutting up jerseys and he has a weak stomach. Point being, Peacock was really good in the BP, and can be a late inning, high leverage guy. Keep him there.
Then there are the youngsters. If Cole, JV, either CFM or DK, and #4 starter McHugh can give you about 100-120 starts, can one cobble together, say, 50 competitive starts from Josh James, Framber Valdez, Forrest Whitley, and Rogelio Armenteros? First, barring injury or suspension, Whitley is a lock to crack the Astros rotation next year. He’s simply too good to keep down. He’s making a mockery of the AFL after mowing through three levels in 2017. The only question is number: 12 starts at the MLB level? 15? Compare him to Walker Buehler. Buehler was shut down after being drafted in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. He threw 5 IP in 2016. In 2017 he pitched 88 innings across three minor-league levels, and pitched 9 IP for the Dodgers. He made 23 starts for the Dodgers, not including the 3 he’s made in the playoffs. Whitley is younger, but it’s conservative to pencil him in for 12-15 starts. Josh James is ready and will be 26 to start the season. There’s no need to keep him down. I’m just worried about the injury risk of guys who throw 102mph. Framber Valdez was a ticking time bomb in 2018 with the walks, but his walk rate was good in AA and AAA. There’s no reason to think he can’t be an effective 5th starter once he calms down. That quartet (let’s just say Rogelio is good insurance and leave it at that) is more than just break glass in case of emergency. They’re good. With McHugh back to the rotation, and if Luhnow signs Morton or Keuchel, do those four players provide enough depth 5-8 to get the Astros through a season, or at least to the trade deadline? I certainly think so.
My hunch is that Luhnow hopes so, but won’t bet so. After spending on: 1) a catcher; 2) a #3 starter, I’m betting Luhnow tries to find the next CFM. Somebody who would take 2/14 for the possibility of redemption. Luhnow is not just looking for Morton 2.0, he’s looking for the equivalent of the Warriors signing Boogie Cousins. He wants to troll all of MLB. Let me throw out a couple of names.
Matt Harvey. Yes, the guy who could make us forget to dislike Osuna. Would Harvey come to Houston for 2/20? Would he be worth the risk? What about the 2019 version of Miles Mikolas? He signed for 2/15.5 last winter. If the Cards can figure out how to reclaim a guy from Japan who made 32 starts and put up 4.3 WAR four years removed from posting a 6.44 ERA with the Mall Cops, then certainly the Astros can. If Luhnow can’t find his man in Japan, would Gio Gonzales or Drew Pomeranz come to Houston to chase a ring and avoid the East Coast media spotlight?
This post provides more questions than answers, but that’s what the hot stove season is for. I would prefer Keuchel for 3-4 years to provide stability after 2019, but I’m worried that Boras will want something like Darvish money (6/126) and will have Keuchel pitching out of somebody’s garage in Florida in early March.