Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Astros' rotation order, and what it means

The Astros are again using an off day to re-adjust the order of their rotation, as the Chronicle recently pointed out in an article about Brett Oberholtzer.  I have written a little bit about this already this year, so further comment about what I think it all means may be in order.

So how did we get to here??

Well, the Astros have used four starters consistently all year.  Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were locks for the rotation given their strong performances in 2014.  Scott Feldman was a lock for the rotation given his seniority, contract, and his history of reasonable effectiveness.  Roberto Hernández was signed as an article XX(B) free agent - or a minor league signing that can opt out if they are not in the majors, earning an agreed salary, by a certain time.  He pitched his way on to the team with a strong Spring Training, and he has effectively eaten innings in a league-average kind of way so far this year.

The fifth slot has been a bit of a carousel.  Asher Wojciechowski opened the year as the nominal fifth starter, but he actually started the third game.  Wojo got three starts and one bullpen appearance in the Major Leagues, throwing 16 innings and allowing 13 earned runs.  He has pitched a little better back in Fresno, pitching 22.2 innings in four starts, and allowing 11 earned runs.  A team like the Astros (i.e. planning to contend) would be unwilling to stomach starts of that quality every fifth day.

Brad Peacock returned from hip labrum surgery, and made a single start on April 14, initially replacing Asher Wojciechowski.  He lasted five innings, throwing 85 pitches, and noticed an intercostal strain some time after or during that start.  He remains on the disabled list at the time of writing.

Sam Deduno started games in early May (1st and 6th), but allowed 11 earned runs in 8.2 innings pitched.  His first start - at short notice - was fairly strong, but his second start was the opposite of strong, and he mopped up in two further games before hitting the DL with a back strain.

Approximately one month after Brad Peacock's return Brett Oberholtzer made his only start of 2015.  An index finger blister sidelined him during Spring Training and the early part of the season.  The blister problem re-emerged, and he lasted only three frames before heading back to the DL.  He has just started a minor-league rehab assignment.

Lance McCullers has made the last two starts in the slot previously occupied by the abovementioned four pitchers.  He was destined to have two starts before the May 28 off-day.  His spot was due to come up again on May 28, so the Astros could potentially have skipped him altogether and possibly optioned him to the Minor Leagues after his May 23 start.  However, after his last start - in which he showed much better command and control - he remained on the 25-man roster, which signalled that his opportunities to pitch would most likely continue.

The Astros now head into a 13-day period where they have no scheduled off days.  The 11th of June is the only off day scheduled for June.  The off day after that falls on the the 2nd of July.

So, the Astros have chosen to re-jig the order of their rotation again.  The new rotation with have McCullers going on May 29 against the White Sox on five days of rest, Kuechel going on normal rest on May 30, and Hernández going on six days of rest on May 31.  Presumably, Feldman will pitch with one day extra rest on the first of June, but that has not been formally announced.  Alternatively, McHugh could go on the 1st of June on normal rest, and Feldman could go on the 2nd of June on six days' rest.  A rotation of McCullers-Kuechel-Hernández-McHugh-Feldman holds some appeal in terms of the order if the starters, with McHugh stopping Hernández and Feldman going on back-to-back days.

With McCullers pitching in the first game of a 13-day run of games, it would be anticipated that he will also throw Game 6 (June 3) and Game 11 (June 8) of that run, unless a move is made.  Brett Oberholtzer was scheduled to pitch his first rehab appearance today (May 27), and he made the start, throwing 85 pitches and giving up 4 runs (1 earned) in 4.2 innings pitched.  The previously linked article suggests that Obie would next go on June 2 for a second rehab start on "normal" (6-man rotation) rest.  The Grizzles have no off days before the 2nd of June.

So unless Obie's finger blister recurs, or some other injury happens, he will be lined up with McHugh or Feldman on June 2, depending mostly on whether Fresno continues to employ a six-man rotation.  The 2nd of June would be only one day before McCullers' next start.  More importantly, McCuller's start on the 8th of June would line up nicely with Obie's "normal" 5 days' rest at Fresno, so Obie could potentially step into the rotation at that time without missing a beat.

So it seems that McCullers will have at least another 2-start audition for a regular starting spot in the Astros' rotation.  I doubt he will go more than six innings in either of those starts - not unless his pitch count was well south of 80 pitches after six frames.  If McCullers manages stick with the Astros, they will be interested in keeping mileage off his arm for later in the season.

But the concern I have around the Astros' rotation is more around the continued effectiveness of Feldman and Hernández, and, to a lesser extent, McHugh.  I think eventually, there will be a role for at least one of Peacock or Oberholtzer in the rotation, and if either or both return in June effective and fresh, then they could be important players late in the summer.  With the news that popular target Scott Kazmir left his most recent start with a shoulder problem, and with Buster Olney echoing popular sentiment that the Astros' starting rotation is the one weak spot in a run to the post-season, things are tightening up quickly.

The Astros may have to rely on internal options if they want to play in October for the first time in a decade, so Lance McCullers will get a good, long look.  Just don't expect any complete games from him - low pitch counts and quick hooks will be the order of the day.