In a sense, the Astros were always expected to use at least nine to ten starters this season. It is increasingly rare, if not implausible, to navigate an entire 162-game campaign at the bare minimum with only five to seven starters. Plus, the days of multiple pitchers throwing 200-plus innings on a consistent basis are more a relic of the past than the norm. For example, 31 pitchers threw at least 200 innings in 2012. Fast forward ten years and that figure drops to only eight. Instead, most clubs figure — instead, hope — they can cobble together enough innings from about eight to twelve starters.
In Houston’s case, one of their strengths from last season was their pitching depth. At various points last season, there were more pitchers than innings available. It is also why the club didn’t push Justin Verlander too hard, especially at the onset of the season, and why they took their time with Lance McCullers Jr. and Hunter Brown. Combine that enviable starter depth with an above-average bullpen, it is clear why Jim Crane felt comfortable not re-signing Verlander or adding any other pitcher of consequence in the off-season. I’d argue that he shouldn’t have felt that comfortable as pitching depth can evaporate quickly, especially as we’ve seen this season. I mean, the rotation is essentially down to Framber Valdez and Brown as Cristian Javier, McCullers, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy have all either regressed or currently reside on the IL. While the early season results shone brightly on the rotation, June represented a step backward (4.03 ERA/5.08 FIP). Dusty Baker wasn’t wrong in February when he lamented that the general manager-less organization didn’t sign a veteran starting pitcher.
Thankfully, one impressive aspect about these Astros is their ability to generate quality pitchers out of seemingly thin air. It is an incredible testament to their scouting and development department as well as their pitching coaches. All things considered, the fact that J.P. France, Brandon Bielak, and Ronel Blanco have thrown for a combined 3.73 ERA in 144 2⁄3 innings as starters is incredible. While there are some viable concerns about how long the trio can pitch at this level — 5.52 FIP — they have saved this organization’s bacon as the rotation could’ve easily become a liability outside of Valdez and occasionally Brown. France, in particular, has pitched well enough — 3.26 ERA/4.80 FIP — to where it is difficult to justify removing him anytime soon from the rotation.
Odds are Urquidy eventually supplants either Bielak or Blanco when he is ready to return from the IL. I think Blanco is ultimately more valuable to the club in a pre-2022 Javier role, which was as a multi-inning option out of the bullpen, at least in the long term. Of course, Blanco is likely optioned back to Sugar Land to keep him stretched out, but it is a thought worth exploring. Regardless of future decisions, this trio of pitchers is a reason why this club is 49-38 and only two games behind the Rangers for the AL West lead. Moral of the story: A team can never have enough pitching and the past couple of months only reinforces the need for quality depth.