“The only thing that matters is what happens on the little hump out in the middle of the field.” —Earl Weaver
The Astros’ incredible run to 106 regular season wins and all the way to winning the World Series was driven by great pitching and great depth in both starting and relief. The starting pitch depth went a long way to enabling the bullpen performance by preventing too many “worn-out bullpen days.” (As a side note, I consider defense and pitching as a joint effort called “run prevention,”—-and defense is certainly part of the exceptional pitching performance.)
With Justin Verlander leaving the Astros, the next question is whether the Astros will need to enter the market for free agent pitchers. Between the loss of both Verlander and Odorizzi, the Astros have a 235-inning hole to fill in the starting rotation. (In 2022, Verlander pitched 175 innings, and Odorizzi pitched 60 innings.) So, will the Astros have to sign another pitcher to fill this hole?
According to the Houston Chronicle reporter:
I don't think losing Justin Verlander puts the Astros in the pitching market. The prices right now are huge and Houston has Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Hunter Brown coming back.— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) December 5, 2022
I think this quote probably applies to the top of the pitching free agent market. But it’s less clear that this applies to the lower end of the pitching market, which we could call the “depth market.” The Astros would have to pursue a top-tier free agent like Rodon if they wanted to clearly improve the current rotation—and that would be expensive. And, sure, the Astros could find middle-tier free agent pitchers who are similar to or better than Jose Urquidy, but what then happens to Urquidy? He really isn’t ideal as a relief pitcher. And if a free agent is added to allow the Astros to trade Urquidy, the net impact really doesn’t improve the pitching depth.
Starting Pitching Depth
Almost all teams need to use more starting pitchers than the number of pitchers in their starting rotation. Injuries will happen to all rotations. It is difficult to predict the severity or duration of the injuries. Sometimes the injuries only require a few days off, and sometimes, the injuries end a pitcher’s season. In addition, sometimes starting pitchers slump or go through periods of severe performance decline, and the team has to look for a replacement pitcher. As an example, the number of starting pitchers used by the Astros for 2018 - 2022 (excluding the shortened 2020 season) is shown below.
Starting Pitchers Per Season
The Astros were relatively lucky in 2022 on the starting pitcher injury front. Perhaps not so much in 2019. But it’s safe to say that the Astros will probably need 8 or 9 starting pitchers next year, and perhaps more if they encounter bad luck.
If the Astros utilize a five-man rotation, Urquidy likely is the No. 5 pitcher, and Hunter Brown would be the swing reliever who can fill in for rotation injuries. If the Astros utilize a six-man rotation — it’s possible the six-man rotation helped reduce physical stress on the starting pitchers last year— then Brown would be the No. 6 starter. In that case, it is a question mark who would be the replacement starter if an injury occurs. At this point, Brandon Bielak would appear to be the likely choice. But the downside of this option is that Bielak is currently projected to produce negative WAR if he pitches as a starter in the major leagues.
The bottom line is that the Astros likely will need to use eight or nine starters in 2023, and they have six starting pitchers on the major league roster. And the situation could become a more severe problem if one or more of the starters suffers an injury that keeps them out for several months.
Ideally teams would like to have the depth of good starting pitching at the AAA level to serve as replacements. The Astros were lucky in 2022 that Hunter Brown— the next in line —was an elite Top 100 pitching prospect. Currently, the Astros do not have a Hunter Brown quality pitching prospect in AAA. Bielak is probably the next in line, but as noted previously, he is likely a below-average major-league starter. The remaining starters at AAA had a poor 2022 season, at least in terms of ERA. Brown’s ERA was 3 or 4 runs better than those teammates in the rotation. Forrest Whitley is a former top prospect, but he has experienced numerous injury setbacks, and it is difficult to view him as a dependable replacement. Seth Martinez has fulfilled a long reliever role at times; I don’t know if it is possible that he could be extended into a starting pitching role if necessary.
Free Agent Pitchers
There are many ways to approach the option of signing a free-agent starting pitcher for depth. To me, a key question is whether a middle-tier starter (such as Quintana, Tijuan Walker, Syndegaard or Tallion) would require a rotation spot and therefore block Brown from entering the rotation (even if he is a better run-preventer). A starting pitcher who can be a swing reliever in the bullpen would be ideal. But some starters are not well suited to pitch in relief, and, more importantly, the pitcher may not be willing to sign a contract if they won’t be used in the rotation. If you want to peruse some of the available free agents and possible contract requirements (these are frequently underestimated), check Fangraphs here.
I identified some potential reasonably priced starting pitchers who could be used in a swing reliever role. I’ll begin with some lefthanded pitchers because they can add some diversity to the Astros’ RHP dominated pitching staff.
- Rich Hill. At age 42, this lefty curveball maestro almost makes Verlander look like a youngster. He does not pitch deeply into games as a starter (4 or 5 innings), which would be typical for a swing pitcher. He is also tough on LHBs and could fulfill the lefty role in the bullpen if he isn’t starting. He is projected as a 1 WAR player in around 100 innings.
- Drew Smiley. The 33-year-old LHP had a good season with the Cubs and turned down a $10 M mutual option. He was solely a starter this year, but he has some experience in the past as an occasional relief pitcher. As a lefty, he didn’t show strong splits vs. LHBs last year, which doesn’t really help with a bullpen role.
- Sean Manaea. The 30-year-old LHP was an important part of the Padres’ rotation down the stretch. He pitched in relief a couple of times for the Padres, but he may want a purely starting role. His projected 2023 production is 1.9 WAR over 150 innings. Fangraphs crowd-sourced contract estimate is 2 / $22 M. Now turning to some RHPs...
- Trevor Williams. The 30-year-old RHP had a true swing role with the Mets. He started in 9 games and relieved in 21 games. Mid-3’s x-ERA and FIP last season.
- Jordan Lyles. The former top draft pick of the Astros (now 32 years old) had a solid year starting for the Orioles. The Orioles credited Lyles with providing leadership to the young pitching staff. He did not pitch in relief last year but has experience as a reliever earlier in his career.
- Michael Wacha. The Red Sox RHP was solely a starter last year but has pitched in relief occasionally in prior seasons. He produced 1.5 WAR in 120 innings last year. The Fangraphs crowd-sourcing estimates a contract at two years, $10 M per year.
Another option is to stash veteran starting pitchers in AAA or sign them to a non-roster invite to spring training. This normally applies to veteran pitchers who want to restart their career or otherwise show that they can continue pitching in the majors. Chris Archer, Johnny Cueto, or Wade Miley might fit this category. I’m not saying they would accept an NRI. But I think their future performance is so iffy that the Astros should avoid a guaranteed contract.