In the wake of Wade Miley and Gerrit Cole’s departures, the Astros project to have quite a few starts on the mound available for the taking in 2020. Lance McCullers Jr., returning from Tommy John surgery, and Jose Urquidy, who was dynamite in September and October of 2019, project to slot into the vacant spots in the rotation to open the year, but neither has ever thrown a full big league starter’s workload, and it’s unreasonable to expect perfect health for the opening day five man rotation over the course of an entire season. It’s fair to wonder if the Astros might take a slightly different approach with McCullers, such as preceding him with an opener. Now 26, McCullers hasn’t made more than 22 starts since 2015, when he had 27 starts and a pair of relief appearances across Double-A and the majors, totaling 157 and 2⁄3 frames. While Houston hasn’t really used the strategy much to date, preceding McCullers with an opener could be worth exploring, as he tends to be a five or six inning pitcher, even on days when he is dominating. An outstanding per-inning arm, managing McCullers’ workload effectively will be a key to success for the Astros in 2020.
The next man up in the rotation could be Josh James, though if the Astros did want to insert somebody into an opener/fireman role, he’d be a candidate for that spot as well. However, if James doesn’t win an opening day rotation spot, and it’d be an upset if he did, he’ll almost certainly be assigned to the big league bullpen, at which point he is less likely to be used as a spot starter, as he’ll have adjusted to pitching in shorter stints. If the Astros need a starter on short notice, they’re likely to come from the rotation at Triple-A Round Rock. At this point in time, there are four starters I see as reasonable bets to make big league appearances in the upcoming season.
Forrest Whitley, RHP, Age 22 - Most readers are surely familiar with the book on Whitley at this point, as he’s ranked as one of the top prospects in the game for years now. The 6’7” right hander entered 2019 as the best pitching prospect in baseball for most, but had well documented struggles at Triple-A and was eventually shut down. At that point, he began working on wholesale mechanical adjustments to take stress off of his body, and returned down the stretch to make starts at lower levels on the ladder. In his return, Whitley was off and on, but on his good days he looked much like the pitcher who had dominated every assignment in his early career. While he largely limited himself to his fastball and curve, both pitches showed plus and he did go to his impressive changeup occasionally as well. After the season, Whitley received his second consecutive Arizona Fall League assignment, and outside of one ugly start, ranged from good to outstanding. He’s lost a bit of stock after what was largely a lost season, but will enter 2020 some momentum and still shows frontline starter upside. He’ll need to have success at the Triple-A level to put himself in line for a call-up, as there are other options should he struggle, but if he pitches to his potential expect to see him fairly early in the season.
Cristian Javier, RHP, Age 22 - Since debuting in 2015, Javier has dominated at every level of the minor leagues, consistently putting up elite strikeout rates while limiting runs. While he doesn’t throw quite as many strikes as you’d like to see from a traditional starter, it’s hard to argue with the results he’s been able to achieve. Often described as crafty, Javier creates a lot of deception with his delivery and has a broad arsenal and feel for spin. He attacks hitters from a unique angle, shows multiple breaking balls, and has a strong cutter to boot. While often typecast as a reliever due to his delivery, Javier has now progressed to Triple-A as a starter without slowing down, and could well get a shot to do so in the majors soon. One of the bigger up arrows in the Astros system in 2019, Javier struck out 170 batters in 113 and 2⁄3 innings last season, his best to date. He’ll open 2020 with Triple-A Round Rock.
Brandon Bielak, RHP, Age 23 - Drafted out of Notre Dame in the 11th round of the 2017 draft, Bielak has proven to be a diamond in the rough since, rapidly reaching Triple-A in just two full pro seasons. Bielak slid in the draft due to control issues in college, but figured something out in the pros and has faced little resistance in his rise up the ladder. Bielak doesn’t have an elite fastball but sits in the low 90s, and has high quality breaking stuff that allows him to miss a healthy amount of bats, as well as a changeup, that lags behind his other stuff but is still a usable offering. His command can still be a little uneven, but Bielak is a heady pitcher who is almost ready for his big league opportunity. Assuming he can find that last tick of command, he has a chance to be a long term #4 starter in the majors. I like his chances to do so.
Tyler Ivey, RHP, Age 23 - Unlike Bielak, Ivey has a pretty unorthodox delivery with a lot of moving parts, but it has worked to great effect for him while healthy. Unfortunately, health has seldom been on his side thus far, as he was limited to just 52 innings in 2019. When he’s right, Ivey has a firm, quality fastball, a beautiful, swing and miss curve, and two variations on a slider, one of which looks more like a cutter. He’s able to locate his stuff and shows advanced pitchability, and missed a ton of bats at the Double-A level last year. He missed the last two weeks of the season with an undisclosed injury, but assuming he’s healthy to start 2020, he’s likely to start the season at Triple-A where he could pitch his way into an opportunity pretty quickly with his ample upside.