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With the rotation nearing full strength, its health could be the Astros’ key to success

The starting staff is Houston’s X-factor.

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MLB: San Diego Padres at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros have finally received their long awaited pitching reinforcements in the form of starters Framber Valdez and Jake Odorizzi. For good measure, José Urquidy has also just returned from an injury of his own. Last weekend was the first time the Astros had the majority of their projected rotation in uniform. It cannot be understated how paramount it is for the team that things stay that way.

Though Lance McCullers Jr. is now sidelined, Dusty Baker believes he’ll be back in a few weeks. The starting staff is in good shape in the interim, with impressive rookie Luis García filling in for McCullers.

With injuries being so pervasive around the league, it’s never been more imperative for a contending team such as the Astros to maintain a deep stable of arms. Starting pitching is important in general, but the Astros’ reliance on theirs is amplified, due to a weakness that is a strength for most other top clubs.

Of all 10 teams that are currently slated to make the playoffs, only the Astros have a bullpen ERA that’s in the bottom third of the entire league. What’s more, their FIP ranks 28th.

A dissertation could be written detailing how inept Astros relief pitching has been this year. Their collective performance in May was borderline comical. But they should get a serious boost in June.

Cristian Javier made his first relief appearance in Friday’s contest against the Padres, pitching four quality innings of one-run ball. An outing of that length won’t likely be the norm, as the 24-year-old was still relatively stretched out at the time, but he does figure to be an invaluable multi-inning arm going forward.

Fortunately for the Astros, they have a tremendous closer in Ryan Pressly. One of the club’s primary struggles this year has been handing him the ball with the lead still in tact. Javier will now undoubtedly be the go-to option in those situations and act as a bridge to Pressly. Additionally, upon McCullers’ return, García will also be available to help fill that void.

It’s not yet guaranteed that García will make the move, especially in wake of recent starts where he’s pitched deep into games against potent lineups (LAD, BOS). He’s showcased top-of-the-rotation ability, but considering the ineffectiveness and lack of depth in the relief corps, as well as Valdez and Urquidy’s standing on the staff, it seems likely that García is the odd an out.

That being said, the Astros must have a fully healthy rotation to keep Javier and (presumably) García in the bullpen. As a result of these conversions, current set-up men Ryne Stanek and Bryan Abreu can translate to middle relief, where they should be better suited.

Past Astros teams have had the luxury of not needing to utilize starting pitchers out of the bullpen. This squad doesn’t have it. The five primary starters could prove to be a highly effective unit, but their durability is what could ultimately determine the outcome of the club’s 2021 campaign.