As we enter the third week of the MLB offseason, the Houston Astros have had several changes to the organization. A boatload of those have occurred in the front office, as other teams raid the cupboard in an attempt to replicate the success of the Astros analytically-driven approach. Another area of the team that has been strongly impacted by change is the Astros’ starting pitching. Dallas Keuchel, as expected, declined his qualifying offer from the club—likely signaling his departure—Lance McCullers, Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season, and Charlie Morton remains a free agent. The potential loss of three-fifths of the 2018 starting rotation has led to a bit of panic from Astros fans, and I while I understand the sentiment, there are a few reasons I’m not ready to hit that big, red button.
First, is the quality at the top of the rotation. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole both merited Cy Young consideration this season and there is little reason to expect them to show much decline in 2019. I may be using a little hyperbole here, but even if three backend guys filled the vacant slots, Verlander and Cole alone likely keeps the Astros rotation atop the division. (As a side note: I’m also optimistic we’ll re-sign both Verlander and Cole to extended deals in the next year, which will improve the outlook of the rotation beyond 2019.)
I also believe Charlie Morton is coming back, and that would obviously be a good thing. Morton had the best season of his 11-year career in 2018, striking out over 200 guys, leading the Majors in win-percentage (15-3, .833), making 30 starts for the first time, and being selected to his first All-Star team. He was a little erratic at times, leading the American League in batters hit by pitch (16), but Morton was so overpowering that he was able to overcome it. Morton’s unlikely to go deep into games on a regular basis for the Astros (for a few reasons, including some inconsistency but also workload limitations to maintain his health), but he’s about as good of a No. 3 starter as you can find. Ensuring his return is one of the biggest offseason priorities, in my opinion.
In the event Morton doesn’t return, I still have trust in the Astros’ internal options—both those already on the roster (Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, Josh James) and in the Minor Leagues (Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas, Rogelio Armenteros). We’ve written articles—which I’ve linked on the players’ names above—on most of the aforementioned pitchers over the past few months that present a reasonable argument to expect the Astros are capable of replacing any production lost.
Speaking of lost production, Dallas Keuchel has been one of the icons for this franchise for about half a decade now. Keuchel has been through some of the Astros’ leanest years and deserves respect and acknowledgement for his evolution, leadership, and results in Houston. Honestly, his out-of-nowhere transformation from fringe Major Leaguer to American League Cy Young winner is one of the most unexpected I’ve seen from a Houston athlete. But he hasn’t been quite the same pitcher we witnessed in that Cy Young-winning 2015.
As you can see above (click the image to enlarge), a lot of Keuchel’s numbers have dipped compared to 2015 (which, to be fair, was truly remarkable and unlikely to be replicated). For instance, although Keuchel eclipsed 200 innings this season for the first time since 2015, he led the Majors in hits allowed (211). He allowed 26 more hits in 2018 than he did in 2015, when he threw nearly 28 more innings. Keuchel has definitely had moments of greatness since 2015 and is still a good pitcher—and a lefty—but he’s battled injuries and consistency issues the past few years that have diminished his on-field value, which leads me to believe the Astros can replace his production at a much lower cost than he’ll command.
McCullers is one of my favorite Astros, and I’m always uber disappointed when he’s out for an extended period because it just seems to happen too often and we never get to see his upper limit. Unfortunately, the Astros have become accustomed to dealing with injury concerns for McCullers most of his career. In addition to injuries, McCullers’ control can sometimes abandon him; he’s got top-of-the-rotation potential but has yet to put it together for an entire season. As I previously mentioned, the Astros do seem well-equipped to fill McCullers’ spot in the rotation with an internal option, many of which will also come at a relatively low cost. Whoever takes his spot in the rotation may not be likely to have the ceiling of McCullers, Jr., but it may be enough if the Astros can simply get consistency and health from his replacement.
So far, I’ve operated under the assumption the Astros will not add an external starting pitcher, which seems unlikely. Recent reports have indicated the Astros are one of at least a few teams in pursuit of a trade with the Seattle Mariners for lefthanded pitcher James Paxton.
#Astros on list of teams talking to #Mariners about a trade for LHP James Paxton, sources say. Market described as “active,” including HOU, NYY and a wide variety of other clubs. Paxton in his career against HOU: 2.89 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, .605 opponents’ OPS.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 11, 2018
Although I can’t envision Seattle trading Paxton within the division, let alone to Houston, if the deal does happen, the Astros upgrade the vacancy left in the rotation by Keuchel with an even better lefty starter. And if not, I trust Jeff Luhnow and his staff to make moves, sure, but I also feel good about that part of the roster already. I’d prefer to upgrade in other areas—such as catcher and designated hitter—over starting pitching, especially if we bring back Morton. And if the Astros somehow strike a deal for Paxton as well, Houston’s rotation in 2019 will have a chance to be even better than it was in a historic 2018.
How do you feel about the Astros’ rotation in 2019? Let us know in the comments below.