Although the lockout still rages on, the Astros were able to finalize their recent agreement with free-agent starter Justin Verlander. You can blame the review of the language in the contract as the cause of the delay. This issue was also why MLB and MLBPA, even in the midst of a labor dispute, were fine with approving the paperwork as the Astros and Verlander were technically in agreement prior to the December 1 deadline. In turn, our collective heartburn about this situation has subsided. We have enough of that discomfort right now with Carlos Correa’s free agency.
With that all-ever important confirmation out of the way, Houston is actually in an enviable place when it comes to starting pitching depth. Here is what the rotation — in no particular order — could look like on Opening Day, whenever that actually happens.
- Justin Verlander
- Lance McCullers Jr.
- Framber Valdez
- Luis García
- Jose Urquidy
Verlander’s return, even if he only regains 75 to 80 percent of his best form, still provides another pitcher to place atop of the staff next to Lance McCullers Jr. and Framber Valdez. Say if the lower percentile projections somewhat come to pass, Verlander’s ceiling and floor are arguably higher than Zack Greinke’s in 2021. That’s an improvement by itself, although the price is still a bit steep at $25 million. But sometimes you have to pay a premium for pitching and this organization has enough depth on pre-arbitration contracts to absorb a fair amount of that risk.
By FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections, the club is considered the best in the AL in terms of projected WAR (14.0). (Interestingly enough, as a “fun” fact, there are six clubs ahead of the Astros in this regard, yet all reside in the NL.) As I mentioned a moment ago, there is enough internal depth at this juncture to mitigate some of the risk involved with Verlander in addition, to some extent, McCullers. Those same depth chart projections currently expect the former to throw 175 innings while the latter only 147. The projected innings leader is actually Valdez with 191 frames. Luis García is third on the list at 168 with Jose Urquidy rounding out the top five with 136.
The days are long gone when you could expect a team to get by a full 162-game season, and possibly the postseason, on the arms of four to five starters. Even the vaunted 2018 Astros rotation, who were more of an exception than the rule, would eventually suffer by injuries late in the season to McCullers and Charlie Morton. That fact is why it is imperative for a contending team to have multiple arms to rely upon at the drop of a hat. But assembling that kind of depth isn’t an easy task, as we can attest to during the postseason.
These Astros, on paper, are built — at least on the pitching side — to absorb innings when it counts. For example, I have yet to mention two pitchers until now — Jake Odorizzi and Cristian Javier — who could find themselves with more prominent roles than currently forecasted. While it could be argued that Odorizzi’s contract is a roadblock to the roster budget, he’s also a high-floor insurance policy in the event you need him. Javier is a bit more of an unknown considering how he could also find himself back in the bullpen under the right circumstances. That said, Javier arguably looked better as a starter than a reliever in 2021, and the Astros have relayed how they want him to start this offseason. Then there are the minor leagues to consider as prospects like Hunter Brown, J.P. France, and Forrest Whitley may finally get a chance at various points next year.
In short, there is depth is there to cover the innings; however, the next question is how effective those arms will be. As we saw during the ALCS and World Series, when your depth evaporates in addition to poor performances from your healthy pitchers, it can snowball quickly. While the Astros are at the mercy of the latter more than what we care to admit, they can hedge their bets on the former. I think it’s safe to say that their depth will come in handy at some point in 2022.