The Astros’ starting rotation took a major blow this offseason when Gerrit Cole decided to take his talents to the Bronx. Even with his decision, the Astros still have a solid rotation with the addition of Zack Greinke in the final seconds of the 2019 trade deadline.
The ace spot on the staff will be filled by Justin Verlander, followed by Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. The latter will be interesting to watch this season, coming off Tommy John surgery in November of 2018. If he can return to form in 2020, the Astros will once again have one of the MLB’s top 1-2-3 punches.
The fourth spot in the rotation will most likely be filled by José Urquidy following a solid rookie campaign. In 2019, he pitched 41 innings as both a starter and reliever, with an ERA of 3.95.
This leaves a few options for the final spot in the rotation according to pitching coach Brent Strom: Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Austin Pruitt.
Brad Peacock would be another option for that role, but he has been dealing with a recurrence of nerve damage in his neck. As of now, he is throwing, but only on flat ground at 90 feet. There’s currently no timetable for his return to begin working from the mound, so he is likely out of the running for a starter spot. Throughout his career in Houston, he has excelled as a long reliever, high leverage situation reliever, and spot starter.
The Astros also have a top pitching prospect in their farm system, Forrest Whitley. Whitley is ranked as the 16th-best prospect in all of baseball and Houston’s top prospect heading into the season.
Drafted 17th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft, Whitley had a rough time the last two seasons. He was suspended in 2018 for 50 games for violating MLB’s drug prevention and treatment program and had an up-and-down 2019 season.
While he will probably start the season in Triple-A Round Rock, look for Whitley to make a few starts in the majors this season and potentially lock up a spot in the rotation near the end of the year.
Josh James had an extremely inconsistent season in 2019. When he wasn’t injured, he showed promise. He worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen in his 61.1 innings pitched last season. At times, he looked like the best option out of the pen to get the team out of tough situations, but other times he had a hard time throwing strikes. He finished 2019 with a walk rate of 13.2 percent, which falls in the bottom six percent of the league. On the bright side, he had a strikeout rate of 37.6 percent, which puts him in the top two percent of the league.
This has been the story of James’s major league career, a flamethrower that can top 100+ MPH and strike out a ton of batters but is extremely wild.
He ended the 2019 season with a 4.70 ERA, 1.321 WHIP, and 100 strikeouts. Astros’ pitching coach, Brent Strom, said that James has looked “very impressive” all winter and heading into spring training.
If the Astros are content with a James-less bullpen, he has the best chance of the contenders to take the final spot in the rotation, based on his overpowering stuff and high ceiling. If he can learn to improve his fastball and slider command and hit his spots consistently, look for James to have a breakout season in 2020.
Framber Valdez has been inconsistent since being called up to The Show in 2018. Similar to James, Valdez has a nasty arsenal of pitches, but he has a hard time throwing strikes consistently. Even Mike Trout sees the potential in him. After facing him, he claimed that Valdez had some of the best stuff he’d seen in baseball. That’s insanely high praise coming from a guy of Trout’s stature.
In 2018, he pitched to a 2.19 ERA in 37 innings, showing promise and vying for a spot in the 2019 rotation. 2019 was not very kind to him though, as he ended the season with a 5.86 ERA in 70.2 innings, mostly in relief. His sub-par regular season lead to him being left off of the postseason roster, as he proved to be more of a liability than an asset at times.
Valdez can rack up the strikeouts when he’s in the zone, but he relies on his defense more often than not. In 2018, he had a ground ball percentage of 70.3 percent but in 2019 it fell to 62.1 percent. The Astros have fielded exceptionally well the last few seasons, and with the majority of their starters returning, relying on his defense will not hurt Valdez.
If he can prove to be more consistent than James throughout spring training, he has a very good shot at grabbing the fifth rotation spot.
Austin Pruitt is the new guy on the block in this trio of potential starters. Pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays for the last three seasons, Pruitt has seen his ERA drop each year, going from 5.31 in 2017 to 4.40 last season. While his ERA is nothing to write home about, the improvement is encouraging.
Pruitt is out of options, so Houston must have him on the Opening Day roster or they will risk losing him on waivers. Throughout his career in Tampa Bay, he has only started 10 games but has pitched in relief in 57 games the last three seasons.
Pruitt is the least likely of the three contenders to get the last spot in the rotation, but his skills may be better suited for the long relief spot, spot starts to fill in for injuries, or an “opener” role if Houston decides to deploy that strategy this season.
Although Pruitt has had an up-and-down career, he has never worked with Brent Strom, who has a knack for turning around careers in Houston recently, i.e. Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton.
Prediction: Josh James will fill the final spot in the rotation to begin the season, but look for many guys to fill that role throughout the season if James struggles with his command. Guys like Valdez, Pruitt, Peacock, Whitley, and Bryan Abreu will make occasional starts throughout the season.