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Taking Stock of the Astros’ Starting Rotation Depth

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Hop over to Roster Resource at FanGraphs and the Astros' starting rotation depth chart is as follows: Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown, and J.P. France. José Urquidy and Bradon Bielak are listed as long relievers in the bullpen, which is entirely plausible. I can also envision a scenario where Dana Brown trades Urquidy — and his projected $3.5 million AAV — to help bolster the bullpen and possibly minimize the eventual CBT bill at the same time. Luis García and Lance McCullers Jr. are found on the projected IL. Both right-handers are expected back at some point in 2024, presumably closer to the season’s second half. If everything breaks right, new manager Joe Espada could theoretically have six to nine starting pitchers at his disposal by July or August, not including any minor league arms.

As analysts have already noticed, top clubs have become increasingly fine with assuming additional injury risk in exchange for higher-end arms. Instead of prioritizing the number of innings, those organizations are valuing the quality of those limited innings, banking on those pitchers being healthy when it matters in October, even if it comes with lessened returns during the regular season. That is the general idea behind why the Dodgers acquired Tyler Glasnow, in hopes he pushes them over the top in the postseason when it counts. Jacob deGrom with the Rangers before his second Tommy John surgery. Even Verlander upon the Astros re-acquiring him. Does it always work out as intended? No, it doesn’t, but winning in October is the main objective. With the expanded postseason field in place, it drives down the importance of maximizing regular season wins. Instead, we’re now seeing clubs, at least the good ones, loading up on a few high-end starters and relying upon internal depth to fill out the rest. The Astros are likely no different in 2024 with its projected rotation.

Other than Valdez, who has averaged nearly 200 innings per season in the past two years, the Astros have a starting rotation that could justify a liberal approach in how to distribute innings. After all, Verlander hasn’t thrown more than 175 innings since 2019. But his effectiveness, while lessened in 2023, was still better than his current teammates. Javier, for example, topped out at 162 innings last season, a new career-high, but he struggled to a 4.56 ERA. Brown hit the proverbial wall following 75 13 innings, with his remaining 80 innings with a 6.72 ERA being less than adequate on the whole. France reached 136 13 innings as regression eventually took place in late August. Regression hit multiple starters hard, but the lack of available arms made it clear that pitchers like Javier or Brown couldn’t sit out for long. But if García and McCullers Jr. are triumphant in their hopeful returns, it should afford the organization a luxury it didn’t have last year: Adequate depth in the second half.

With that said, plan on the pitching depth of the Astros being tested again, hopefully not to the same extent as last season, but you get the point. Verlander is now one year older and had his worst full season since 2017. Unlike that season, however, the veteran right-hander didn’t post a 1.06 ERA following a trade to Houston. Instead, Verlander allowed 25 earned runs in 68 innings (3.31 ERA) with the Astros. To be clear, that is still counted as quality production, especially for a club that witnessed its pitching depth quickly evaporate under the Texas sun. But far from the ace-like production this staff desperately needed in the second half.

Then there is the conundrum of Valdez and Javier, who both had noticeably irregular seasons due to larger-than-expected regression. Brown quickly reached his previous inning totals and became less effective as 2023 wore on. France was impressive but also benefitted from some batted ball good fortune. Urquidy was oft-injured again and wasn’t particularly sharp upon his return, either. Both García and McCullers Jr. are coming off of elbow surgeries, with a wide range of possibilities in front of them. While Bielak and Ronel Blanco are fine in a pinch, they don’t offer the same upside in the long term. Spencer Arrighetti, Colton Gordon, or Rhett Kouba are internal options in the minors, but none are currently listed on the 40-man roster.

To be clear, the Astros don’t lack viable options, especially if most are healthy. Verlander, Valdez, and Javier within a reasonable vicinity of the current peak of their abilities represent a solid one-two-three atop of the rotation. The adjustments to García’s cutter were intriguing before Tommy John surgery became a reality. McCullers Jr. is historically an effective pitcher...when healthy. Same for Urquidy. Brown has potential and France proved reliable enough. As long as Bielak and Blanco aren’t thrust back into prominent roles in the rotation, they’re fine as spot starters. Even if the top starters are somewhat limited at times, there is likely enough here to traverse the upcoming season without too much difficulty. I mean, the same thing happened last year and that roster won 90 games. If there is some growth and improvement, along with better health, there are reasons for optimism for the upcoming 2024 campaign.