Projecting the Astros starting rotation

Projecting the Astros starting rotation
February 12, 2013, 3:00 pm
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Astros hit the field on first day of practice

With 60 players coming into Kissimmee and precious few spaces on the opening day roster spoken for, I looked into my crystal ball to imagine what this team might look like when the team breaks camp and heads to Houston for the regular season.

Starting with the rotation, which appears to be the strength of the club, is probably the most settled of any part of the team with Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell after getting the nod from manager Bo Porter Monday that they were assured spots at the top of the rotation. We’ll go with the assumption that both Norris and Harrell, but mainly Norris, will still be with the club when it breaks and not be dealt off for more prospects between now and April.

A notch below those two is Jordan Lyles, who flashed glimpses of what Astros fans hope are signs of good things to come. But those glimpses were accompanied by some nightmarish innings, usually the fifth, for Lyles.

Lyles reached the fifth inning in all 25 of his starts in 2012 but started the sixth inning just 13 times. That was due in large part to a 16.38 ERA in the fifth inning. He didn’t have an ERA above 4.50 in either of the first four innings.

It’s that propensity to give up the big inning that’s prevented Porter from going all in on Lyles so far, but he has endorsed him as the next likeliest pitcher to earn a spot in the rotation.

From there, there’s a scrum of nine pitchers for the remaining two spots with none seemingly holding any significant edge heading into camp. Some with more realistic chances to earn a spot with the club than others.

Edgar Gonzalez and Dallas Keuchel both started games for Houston in 2012, but neither showed enough to ensure a spot in this year’s rotation. Gonzalez had a half dozen starts for the Astros, with a 5.01 ERA and his longest outing in any game was 5.2 innings.

Keuchel was a product of the draft and reached Houston with a reputation as a crafty lefthander without overpowering stuff and pinpoint control. He displayed half of that in Houston last year and wound up walking more batters (39) than he struck out (38).

That lack of control ballooned his ERA to 5.27, though he did have his pitching gems. Keuchel allowed one or fewer earned runs in six of his starts, including a complete game win over Cleveland in his second Major League start. Unfortunately for Keuchel, he also had five starts where he gave up at least five earned runs.

That lack of consistency leads me to believe that neither Gonzalez nor Keuchel will be a starter for the Astros in April unless there is some tangible improvement.

The most experienced of the pitchers left fighting for a spot is left hander Erik Bedard. Bedard has pitched in the Major Leagues for nine seasons and has 63 career wins, including a career-high 15 for Baltimore in 2006. Unfortunately for Bedard, he only has 16 wins since 2009. The Astros are counting on a few things from Bedard, a return to something near what he was at his peak (he’s 33) and a veteran influence on a rotation and roster that is sorely lacking one.

That doesn’t guarantee a spot for Bedard, though. He is this year’s Livan Hernandez, who was one of the final roster cuts in the 2012 spring.

Brad Peacock is one of the more intriguing players of the remaining candidates. Peacock’s only Major League experience came in 2011 with the Washington Nationals, Bo Porter’s former team. So Porter is probably more familiar with Peacock than any other candidate despite the fact he was with the A’s organization in 2012.

Peacock struggled in his one season at Sacramento, Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate. He went 12-9 but Pacific Coast League hitters got the best of him, knocking him around to the tune of a 6.01 ERA. That inconsistency is worrisome, but his relationship with Porter seems like a plus, especially if he pitches well this spring.

The Astros traded for Alex White (from Colorado, acquired in Wilton Lopez trade) and John Ely (from LAD, acquired in Rob Rassmussen trade) and while both are young and unproven, both were the centerpieces to their respective trades.

White is a former first round pick who came to the Rockies organization in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. Unfortunately for White, he didn’t fare well in the mile high air, going 4-13 in 27 starts from 2011-2012. That made him expendable for the Rockies. Hopefully being back down to sea level will help White.

Ely was a top prospect for the Dodgers at one point, though his star began to fade before being dealt to Houston. Even so, Ely shined at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2012, striking out nearly a batter per inning with a K/BB ratio of better than 4.5 to one.

Among the Astros minor league pitchers who are on the 40-man roster, Jarred Cosart remains the only name consistently mentioned as a player with a legitimate shot of breaking camp with the Astros. Though the way the Astros have slowed the climb of its top prospects over the last 12 months would indicate a mid-summer debut for the hard throwing right hander instead of an opening day debut.

Cosart’s ERA was 3.30 between Corpus Christi and Oklahoma City in 2012 and is one of the harder throwers in the Astros minor league system. Thoughts about moving him to the back of the bullpen were quashed (at least for this year) by General Manager Jeff Luhnow before he left for Florida.

The other minor league pitchers on the big league roster, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholzer and Ross Seaton, are the longest of long shots to break spring training with the big club, though all three will probably start the year one step away at Oklahoma City. A 2012 debut for any of the three wouldn’t be out of the question for any of the three pitchers, but shouldn’t happen before Cosart gets his call.

So what will the rotation look like on March 31? Here is my best guess at the start of camp. We’ll revisit these predictions when the regular season gets underway.

Bud Norris

Lucas Harrell

Erik Bedard

Jordan Lyles

John Ely