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Pitching Depth Thoughts

The short-term is clear; however, the long-term plan has become murky. Not due to a lack of arms, but perhaps an abundance.

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, the Astros arguably had an embarrassment of riches when it came to the pitching staff, specifically among the starting rotation with Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy, and Hunter Brown all on staff. That depth chart crunch played a role in the organization ultimately trading Jake Odorizzi to the Braves as there weren’t enough innings to spread around. This same rationale also applied to the decision to not re-sign Verlander, in addition to his ultimate price, in the offseason.

At the time, I recognized the Astros’ rationale behind not re-signing Verlander or a different starter to absorb some innings. Personally, I didn’t like it as I am firmly in the camp that an organization can never have enough pitching depth, but it was the direction under Jim Crane, who essentially served as his own general manager last offseason. Even Dusty Baker lamented about the front office not signing another starter. His position made sense as there is always an injury risk involved with McCullers in addition to the workload concerns surrounding Brown and, to a lesser extent, Javier. Throw in an unexpected injury or two, then you’re looking at a staff suddenly thin on arms.

We all know by now how the situation has ultimately played out, with injuries and regression holding considerable sway. Even with the emergence of rookie J.P. France, the starting rotation has felt a bit unstable this summer. This development was why Houston traded two top-position prospects to the Mets to reacquire Verlander’s services at this year’s trade deadline. At its core, the Astros essentially traded away two prospects to pay less for Verlander through the course of his contract. A much-needed acquisition, yes, as the team’s window is right now, especially as prospects are far from a guarantee. But it is fair to question whether a different course of action in the offseason would’ve better serve the Astros. Bad process, still a good result? Another topic for another day.

Let’s refocus on the topic at hand, which is the pitching depth chart as presently constructed and what it looks like for the next two seasons. Verlander now co-headlines the top of the rotation with Valdez, with Javier and Urquidy anchoring the middle. Brown and France will likely alternate as the Astros attempt to manage their respective workloads. That’s an above-average rotation, all things considered. I do think there is plausible concern about who is the best option in a Game 3 scenario in a short series, with Javier regressing from last year’s impressive performance. But the situation itself is much more palatable than it was a month ago.

For future seasons, however, the waters become a bit murky once again. With Verlander under contract through at least next season, there may not be enough innings to go around when the staff is fully healthy. That said, it remains to be seen when exactly McCullers and Garcia will be healthy enough to make their 2024 debuts as both are recovering from in-season surgeries this year. But under a scenario when the staff is fully healthy, there will be an innings crunch. It does stand to reason that Dana Brown looks to deal from this surplus to enhance the lineup, much like his predecessor James Click attempted to do last season with an agreement in place to trade Urquidy for Wilson Contreras.

The key caveat in all of this discourse is what the Astros will do with Framber Valdez, who is scheduled to enter free agency following the 2025 season. By that point in time, Verlander’s contract is off the books. McCullers’ extension is also off the books by this point. Urquidy is a free agent. Brown and France will have arbitration years remaining. Javier’s deal only counts towards $12.8 million of the tax threshold through the life of his extension. There is certainly room to afford Valdez by that point. The question is whether Crane will likely meet the demand of Valdez, especially if he insists on receiving market value or higher on his next contract. But as it stands right now, the Astros now have some certainty for the next couple of seasons when it comes to the rotation. That’s a good place to be, even if there is an innings crunch coming in the future.