by: Rich Lord
While the Astros continue to maintain a comfortable lead atop the AL West, the notion of storm clouds gathering on the horizon is a hard one to shake. Yes, they continue to win games at a franchise-record pace. Yes, their offense may go down as one that could rival the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s teams as the best in team history. And yes, they are as loaded with prized young talent as any team in Major League Baseball. Optimism continues to grow among the fan base, as evidenced by the uptick in attendance during their current homestand. The potential is there in 2017 for this to be the best season in franchise history and one that could very well produce just the second World Series appearance ever for the Astros.
However, as much fun as it is to project that this could be the start of a multi-year run at bringing the first World Series championship(s?) to Houston, there is a growing urgency surrounding the health of this pitching staff that will need to be addressed in order to avoid a disappointing end to this particular campaign. That urgency is derived from the fact that, until recently, 80% of their projected starting rotation was on the disabled list, unable to contribute.
While the current situation is not one the Astros could have envisioned, the concern over the depth of the starting rotation is not a new development. The Astros entered this season with multiple question marks in that rotation. Staff ace Dallas Keuchel was coming off a disappointing 2016 season, a sobering follow-up to his Cy Young Award-winning 2015 (20-8, 2.48), in which it was later revealed he had been suffering from issues in his pitching shoulder that played a big role in his record plummeting to 9-12 and his ERA skyrocketing to 4.55. At the moment, Keuchel is enduring his second stint on the DL this season with a pinched nerve in his neck. Number 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. was coming off a season that both began and ended with him on the shelf, nursing first a shoulder injury than an elbow problem. In between stints on the DL, McCullers Jr. was, at times, brilliant. At the age of 22, he had already established himself as one of the premier strikeout artists in the sport. But can he stay healthy? The answer right now is, “no,” as McCullers Jr. finds himself back on the DL with a back injury.
Unfortunately, that was a question reserved not only for Keuchel and McCullers Jr. Number 3 starter Collin McHugh entered this season with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder and is currently on the 60-day DL due to elbow and biceps concerns as well. He has not pitched at all this season. Behind McHugh, there was hope that veteran Charlie Morton, acquired through free agency, could bounce back after a 2016 season that ended in April with a hamstring injury. After an encouraging start to this season, Morton is also on the DL, sidelined by a strained muscle in his back. Providing a faint light at the end of the tunnel, promising young right-hander Joe Musgrove recently returned from the DL after being sidelined with a shoulder injury. Prior to his return, the enigmatic Mike Fiers was the only healthy member of their original projected rotation.
Being shorthanded in the rotation has caused stress on a bullpen that had been off to a great start to the season, Of late, there have been more and more bullpen meltdowns as relievers have been asked to carry more of the load, at times in situations that fall outside their intended roles on this pitching staff. Despite the team’s stellar won-loss record, this is an urgent situation that could potentially unravel plans for a long-awaited return to the World Series for Houston.
Fortunately, General Manager Jeff Luhnow has not only done an incredible job rebuilding a farm system that was in tatters when he came to the Astros in 2011, he has also shown himself to be adept at making quality additions to the roster via the trade route. Current Astros acquired through trades made by Luhnow include Musgrove, Fiers, fellow pitchers Chris Devenski, David Paulino, Brad Peacock, Ken Giles, James Hoyt and Francis Martes, along with position players Jake Marisnick, Evan Gattis and Derek Fisher.
The MLB non-waiver trade deadline may not be until July 31, but the time is now for Luhnow to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire another starting pitcher. The overall success of this season may hinge on this decision. While there are quality arms in the pipeline such as the 21-year-old Martes, the Astros cannot rely on inexperienced starters in the heat of a pennant race.
There are several quality candidates available. Most will require that the Astros pay a heavy price. That’s one of the reasons you build up your farm system the way in which the Astros have. Fortunately, they can afford it.
While starters like Alex Cobb from Tampa Bay and the Royal’s Jason Vargas might fit the bill, they are both short-term rentals about to become free agents. Not ideal, especially if you’re paying a high price.
Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole, the Ray’s Chris Archer, Oakland’s Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana of the White Sox and the Twin’s Ervin Santana are all said to be available at the right price and all are under team control beyond this season. If the Astros have targeted one of these pitchers, the time is now to make that move before another contender beats them to it.
A return to health of all the beleaguered starters on this team would be ideal. Luhnow cannot count on that, nor can he put this season in the hands of young, inexperienced starters. The time is now, if not yesterday, to pull the trigger and acquire a quality arm that might help lead this team to the promised land.