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What aspect of the game will be the X factor for the Astros in ’22?

The starting rotation will be a major breaking point for Houston, it seems.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When you evaluate the Astros’ options to succeed in the 2022 season, they have more than one way to do it. They’re still a playoff team that could win their division based on all their talent. Even without Carlos Correa, the Astros still have a pretty good, productive lineup, solid pitching, and a manager that knows how to handle the team. They’re balanced enough to win.

But when the new campaign is about to start, what could be the X factor for them in 2022? What part will be the key to keep dominating in the American League the way they’ve been doing it for a bunch of seasons now? In my humble opinion, it’s their starting rotation.

Even though their starting pitching is not bad, it has lots of question marks entering the regular season. In simple words, there’s uncertainty around it. Why do I say this? Let me explain.

The Astros didn’t add anyone besides Justin Verlander to their staff, a group that lost Zack Greinke — that had to be done, but they could still have signed or acquired someone else via trade. One can assume that after failing to re-sign Correa, Houston has the money to bring one more pitcher, as I suggested in late January, but I’m afraid they’re done.

Houston has different options to start, though. They have Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Luis García, José Urquidy, Jake Odorizzi, and even Cristian Javier. But here is where those question marks I mentioned above come onto the stage.

Verlander is having a big Spring Training, with 8 2/3 scoreless innings of five hits and 10 strikeouts. But you can’t hide facts: he’s coming from a Tommy John surgery that made him pitch only once in 2020 and miss the entire 2021 season. Plus, JV is already 39 years old. Although we’re talking about a legend here, you can’t say he’s not coming with a “?” over his head.

Right when McCullers (flexor) was ready to begin the season as the team’s ace, the Astros announced the righty had setbacks in the offseason and there’s uncertainty about his return to the mound. Two weeks ago, Lance said himself that he will begin the season on the injured list, which automatically creates a void in the rotation.

To me, Valdez and García are the only sure things right now to kick off the campaign. The problem with García is that he needs to build up stamina to avoid running out of gas like in 2021, when he finished second in the ROY voting.

Then there’s Urquidy and Odorizzi. The former needs to prove he can consistently pitch beyond the fifth inning and, in general, go longer in games. The latter had a rough debut with the Astros in ’21 and will try to recover his old form this time. Another question mark.

Lastly, Javier. The right-hander is reportedly seen as a starter by the Astros and has had the most success in that role. But Cristian has the same problem as Urquidy with the stamina. It seems that the key for manager Dusty Baker here will be to handle their workload carefully, thinking in the final months of the season and the postseason.

I insist. There’s never enough pitching, and the Astros can use another arm. Currently, there’s undeniable uncertainty around their starting pitching. Can everything go right for Houston? They have enough talent. Can that huge talent be available, shown, and used? It remains to be seen. But their rotation should be the X factor for the ‘Stros in 2022.