A true diamond-in-the-rough find for the Astros in the 2014 MLB Draft, James has beaten serious odds to reach the major leagues as the 1006th selection. Since that time, he has transformed himself as a pitcher and made serious nationwide noise by striking out 171 batters in 131 innings in the minors in 2018. Now armed with a triple-digit heater, James beat out names like Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon and Chris Devenski to earn a spot in the pen for the Cleveland series.
The explosive righty gives A.J. Hinch a power arm to deploy before the 9th inning, a luxury that the team has not had in recent memory. James’ power alone gives him the ability to exploit matchups with hitters who struggle against velocity, and should an Astros’ starter falter his impressive slider makes for an impressive 1-2 punch with his heater that plays very well in bullpen innings on the whole. James will likely be used sparingly this postseason, but he offers more obvious utility than other potential middle relief candidates after Hector Rondon’s second-half struggles.
Even if the appearances are scant for James, a strong performance could serve as a launching pad as he heads into the 2019 season. With Dallas Keuchel an impending free-agent and Charlie Morton’s status somewhat up in the air, James has the most compelling case among in-house options to enter the rotation next season and should lock up a starting role with a good performance in Spring Training. Though James does project well to the bullpen given his velocity and reliance on his fastball, most agree at this point that James has shown enough polish on his offspeed stuff to get big league hitters out multiple times through the order. He can sit as high as 97 with his heater giving him truly rare heat for a starter.
James’ presence will likely factor heavily into the Astros’ thinking as they enter negotiations with Dallas Keuchel and, to a lesser degree, Charlie Morton. I expect that if Morton wants to pitch again (which may be unlikely) the Astros will be enthusiastic about bringing him back on a one-year pact to act as the #4 again in 2019. Keuchel, on the other hand, is seeking his first free agent deal and will likely have a high asking price giving his Cy Young-winner status and reasonable consistency over the last several seasons. Dallas is more than deserving of such a deal, and I hope he gets it from a good club, but I am not sure if his goals and the Astros’ will align this offseason. As difficult as it is to part with truly-homegrown players such as Keuchel, James is looking primed to mow down major league lineups and represents a massive discount that could help the team shore up weak spots on the offensive side. I would be somewhat surprised if the Astros relationship with Keuchel continues- if they do move on, the Astros would possess an absolutely absurd amount of fastball velocity up and down the rotation. A Cole, McCullers, Verlander, Morton, James rotation wouldn’t provide a single break from 95 MPH average heat.
Should he seize a rotation spot, James ceiling is extremely high. His fastball averaged over 97 MPH in six major league appearances (3 starts), a figure which only Luis Severino topped among starters. He keeps hitters honest with a hard slider and a changeup that has solid separation from his fastball. His command is just average, but that should be enough to carry his premium stuff. I think James has the potential to become a mercurial #3 starter type in the big leagues who dominates at times and has command wobbles at others. If he can continue to make improvements to find command, it’s not out of the question that he could produce like a #2 starter. He’s no longer a sleeper, and represents another outstanding find for the Astros late in the draft.