Entering last offseason, the Astros had enviable depth in their starting rotation. Losing Justin Verlander, the 2022 AL Cy Young winner, in free agency wasn’t something to lightly brush off, but the club was arguably deep enough to survive a full season if everything broke right. Injuries were the largest threat to upending the organization’s plans, at least as it pertained to the projected starting five or six depending on the schedule. But as the old saying goes, “You never have enough pitching.”
Alas, with injuries to Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy, the depth that the club was banking on is now virtually gone. There is little margin for error if someone else goes down for a prolonged period. Out of all of the missteps that the Astros arguably had in the offseason, the decision not to pursue another veteran starter as insurance looms large, especially in an environment when starting pitching figures to remain in high demand leading up to the trade deadline. Yes, Urquidy is inching his way back, hopefully in July, but it doesn’t sound like McCullers Jr. is close to a return and Garcia is undoubtedly out for the next calendar year, if not more, as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. As such, the Astros will likely need to acquire at least one veteran starter by July’s trade deadline to absorb some innings as they also need to monitor Hunter Brown’s workload. Whether that happens is another matter, but we’re clear on the need.
In the meantime, the Astros have had to dig deeper into their minor league depth, with Brandon Bielak, J.P. France, and Ronel Blanco receiving at least one start and all three figures to remain through at least a couple of more turns through the rotation. Based on the early returns in those 11 combined starts, the trio has helped stabilize the rotation, at least in terms of the overall floor of the unit.
• 11 GS
• 59 1/3 IP
• 20.5% K
• 7.8% BB
• 3.49 ERA
• 5.19 FIP
• 4.28 xFIP
At first glance, the results don’t really jump off the page. We’re still in small sample territory right now for all three pitchers, so keep that in mind. Two of the three starters — Bielak and France — have posted above-average barrel rates compared to the league average for starters. Unfortunately, there have also been long-ball issues as both run an HR/FB ratio higher than the league average of 12.7% at closer to 20%. For pitchers, it does take a while for HR/FB rates to begin to stabilize — around 400 fly balls — but it is helpful to see where the damage is coming from. That said, Bielak and France have done an admirable job thus far of limiting walks, which in turn limits the damage when they do give up that extra-base hit or home run. Walk rates, for example, start to stabilize around 170 batters faced. Both Bielak and France are approaching that stabilization territory. But this is also why we see their peripheral stats (FIP, xFIP) run a fair bit higher than their ERA. In other words, if walks issued were to increase, then expect their respective ERA to inflate to some degree.
Blanco’s performance in his first start on Thursday also inspired hope that the Astros rotation can remain afloat as a six-man rotation. It also helps cover some innings as the club waits for whether Urquidy returns in July or some an acquisition for another starter occurs before the deadline. In any case, the Astros don’t necessarily need an above-average performance in every one of Bielak, Blanco, and France’s starts, but their performance needs to at least trend above replacement level, preferably league average as long as they’re in the big league rotation. So far, so good on that front as the trio has trended above league average in ERA, and about league average for strikeout and walk rates. But I am going to watch their walk rates closely, as that figure could greatly dictate what the result becomes considering the other factors at play.