With the Tampa Bays Rays unexpected acquisition of Charlie Morton, the Houston Astros starting pitching suddenly appears a little thinner. How does the Astros rotation project if they went into Spring Training today? Let’s take a look at the Steamer projections for the current crop of starters to analyze their potential impact/contribution to the team.
The Big Two
Fortunately, the Astros will return two of the best pitchers in baseball to their rotation in 2019. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole went 1-2 in strikeouts in the American League a season ago, were both in the Top 5 in ERA, K-BB%, WHIP, and finished second and fifth in the AL Cy Young Voting, respectively. It may not be fair to expect the same production from The Big Two we saw last year, but the 2019 projections look favorable. According to FanGraphs, Verlander and Cole are expected to produce the highest combined WAR in baseball (9.6) for two starting pitchers on the same team (tied with Chris Sale and David Price). Both guys are true professionals, but it’s also important to note Verlander and Cole are each entering the final year of their contract as well, thus providing further incentive for strong campaigns. The presence of The Big Two alone should keep the Astros rotation among the elite and provides them with arguably the game’s strongest 1-2 punch. The real questions begin to emerge elsewhere.
The Likely Contributors
The loss of Morton is likely to sting here, but that means opportunities for other players—namely a couple of guys who have been starters in the past for the Astros. Both skipper A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow have confirmed Collin McHugh will return to the starting rotation in 2019, and as of now he slots in as the No. 3 starter. McHugh was a very valuable component of the Astros bullpen last season, which led the AL in a number of metrics, but his return to the rotation may not necessarily diminish his impact. In 2018, when he was one of the best relievers in baseball, McHugh compiled 1.4 WAR. For comparison, McHugh had a WAR of 3.0 or greater in his first three full seasons with the Astros (2014-17) and even accumulated 1.1 WAR in his abbreviated 2017 campaign. Even though FanGraphs projects McHugh at 1.7 WAR, I’d expect him to return to somewhere near the 3.0 threshold as a full-time starter next season—especially with the revamped arsenal he displayed last year (Side Note: Bilbos is currently preparing an article on McHugh’s importance next season, so be on the look out for a much more in-depth analysis soon.)
Another familiar face is expected to return to the Astros rotation in 2019, and the last time we saw him as a starter, he was a good one. Brad Peacock will likely become the Astros No. 4 starter heading into the season. Peacock started 21 games for Houston in 2017 and produced an admirable 3.4 WAR in a season he wasn’t even expected to make the team. However, Peacock experienced a bit of regression last year as he transitioned into a full-time bullpen role. FanGraphs has him currently projected to start 16 games in 2019, which I think is a bit low, but may represent an ideal number. One of Peacock’s greatest attributes is his flexibility, so somewhere in the range of 20 starts is probably the sweet spot for him and the Astros, as we saw in 2017.
The Potential Studs
I don’t know which of these two I’m more excited to watch. Josh James exploded onto the scene last season, and Forrest Whitley is a born-Texan, first-round pick, stud in-waiting. Let’s start with James, who tore up the Minor Leagues last year. He made 21 starts across two levels (AA and AAA) with a 3.23 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 114.2 innings before being promoted to Houston. He initially came up as a fireballer out of the bullpen for the Astros and was so impressive he ended up making three starts at the tail end of the regular season. James flashed a plus-fastball and could serve any number of roles for the Astros in 2019. Although No. 5 starter seems most likely at this point, FanGraphs has him pegged for 23 starts next season and the third-most WAR in the rotation. Essentially, he is projected to be the Astros third-best starter, even if he slots into the fifth spot in the rotation on paper.
Projections are always difficult for rookies, but there have been many comparisons to Whitley as this year’s Walker Buehler, a guy who came up midseason for the Los Angeles Dodgers after injuries depleted their starting staff. FanGraphs estimates 16 appearances (all starts) for Whitley with the Astros, which seem likely to occur if/when injuries or underperformance affect the Astros rotation. Whitley has the potential to supplant Peacock in the rotation or serve as a key component in the bullpen. If Whitley makes 16 starts in the Bigs next year, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he produces more than his 0.7 projected WAR.
There are a number of other options the Astros could turn to as spot-starters that may emerge into something more. For instance, Framber Valdez would have led the Majors in groundball-percentage (70.3%) last season if he qualified. Granted, that was only in 37 innings, but it provides an indication of the type of pitcher the Astros can expect him to be. J.B. Bukauskas, Rogelio Armenteros, Brady Rodgers, and Cionel Perez (who FanGraphs projects to make 40 appearances out of the ‘pen) are all fill-in options as well that could end up being pieces of the Astros’ rotation. This group as a whole is projected to contribute about 1.0 WAR, which sounds about right.
The Astros may make an addition or two to bolster the starting staff, but that’s far from a certainty. As currently constructed (i.e., using projections for the players outlined in this article, sans Perez), the rotation is projected to produce 16.1 WAR. Although that may not approach the dominance we saw from the Astros last season (22.5 WAR and 77 ERA-, both second in MLB), it is a higher projection than the outcomes for the 2017 staff (14.8 WAR and 96 ERA-).
Here’s a rough estimate of the projected WAR for each starting staff in the AL West and other notable contenders. Just as I did for the Astros, I only included pitchers who were expected to primarily contribute as a starter in the WAR calculations.
|Boston Red Sox||16.8|
|New York Yankees||15.8|
|Tampa Bay Rays||12.2|
Assuming the Astros make no further moves to the starting rotation, they rank 3rd in the AL in projected WAR for 2019. Admittedly, Morton’s departure was a major disappointment to me—and I’m still not over it—but the Astros rotation still has the look of above-average with the potential to be one of the best in the game yet again. Last year’s rotation may have spoiled us, but the duo of JV/Cole in conjunction with experienced veterans (McHugh/Peacock) and young guys with major ceilings (James/Whitley) offers the Astros a chance at another season of superb starting pitching.