Friday, May 15, 2015

Welcome to the Bigs, Lance McCullers Jr.

Well, colour me impressed.  Lance McCullers made a very brief stop in Fresno, throwing no innings,  striking out no batters, and walking none.  He allowed no runs.  These strong pitching performances have resulted in a promotion to the Major Leagues.

On a less humorous note, McCullers has been filthy dominant in the Texas League this year, after solid-but-unspectacular results in Lancaster in 2014.  In Lancaster, he pitched 97 innings, yielding an ERA of 5.47, a WHIP of 1.557, striking out 10.7 per nine, and walking 5.2 per nine.  All of those stats markedly improved in Corpus, with an 0.62 ERA, WHIP of 0.897, with 13.3 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9.  One home run, 11 walks and 15 hits in 29 innings, versus a hefty 43 strikeouts.  This all led to a brief, 2-day promotion to Fresno - as alluded to above - then a call up to start for Houston in the vacant "fifth" starters slot on Monday, against Oakland.

As I recently wrote, the Astros took the recent off day as an opportunity to re-adjust their order a little bit (the sixth bullet point down).  They opened the year with a Keuchel-Feldman-Wojo/5th slot-McHugh-Hernández rotation, and the most recent off day allowed McHugh to flip with the Wojo-5th slot in the middle.  Brett Oberholtzer stepped into the fifth slot last time through the order, and he looked OK in pitching three solid innings, allowing only 1 earned run, but working around a heap of baserunners.  He exited early and headed back to the DL because of his left index finger blister, which cropped up again.

Buchanan was promoted when Oberholtzer was placed on the DL, and was rumoured to be going to start Monday's game against the Athletics.  However, the Astros recently announced that Monday's game will be started by Lance McCullers instead, making him the second of the Astros' 2012 draft class to reach the majors, a couple of weeks after Preston Tucker.

I was going to look at how the Astros could manage their fifth-starter situation over the next month, concentrating on off-days, and looking at their ability to skip that slot altogether.  This was in  anticipation of Brett Oberholtzer being available again in 3-4 weeks.  And if Obie couldn't go, then Peacock may be ready about the same time.

In short, the Astros' ability to skip that slot a few times is very limited.  They have games scheduled for the next 13 days, with the fifth-slot up next on Monday (the start that McCullers has been announced as making), then again on Saturday 23 May.  The next time the fifth slot is up in the rotation falls on 28 May, which is an off day, so there is potential to skip that fifth slot once after accounting for two starts - 23 May against the Athletics, and 28 May against the Tigers.

After that (i.e. 29 May onward) the Astros have another 13 games in a row.  If the fifth slot is skipped on 28 May (i.e. Hernández pitches on the 29th) the problematic fifth slot comes up again twice over that 13-game span: 3 June and 8 June.  If the fifth slot goes on the 29th, then that turn in the rotation would come up again on the 4th and the 9th of June.  The next off day is the 11th of June.

The 11th of June represents the only off day in June.  The next off day falls on the 2nd of July, and that is it until the All Star Break (the 13th to the 17th of July).  So the best the Astros can hope for - without guys going on short rest, which ain't happening in June and July - is for two starts from the fifth slot, then one skipped start, then regular turns right through until early July.  This totals six starts over that period.  Someone needs to be available for that, and McCullers probably represents the best of the available options at this point in time.

This means that McCullers will probably get at least two starts, then perhaps pitch the month of June if he is doing well.  If not, Brad Peacock or Brett Oberholtzer will take over some time in June.  If McCullers doesn't stick, he should at least get a feel for what he needs to do to be effective in the majors.  If he heads back to Fresno in June or July, he will know what he needs to work on.  There is pretty much no down-side to this move.

Two other points to consider here.  Firstly, none of the other Fresno starters are doing much.  After the Veras signing, I had a look at the relief corps in Fresno earlier today, and found slim pickings there if someone needed to be promoted.  It is much the same with the starters.  Luis Cruz has a 5.40 ERA, Handsome Dan Straily has a 5.22 ERA, Jake Buchanan has a 5.08 ERA and Brady Rodgers has a 6.58 ERA.  Thomas Shirley has a 4.44 ERA, but he has spent a some time as a reliever.  Alex White has an unsightly  5.20 ERA.  Even after acknowledging that the PCL is a hitters league, none of these stats, or the associated peripherals (which I didn't present here) inspire much confidence.  None of these guys has the prospect pedigree and the drool-worthy scouting reports that McCullers has.

Secondly, I doubt that it is only the fifth slot that the Astros need to fill.  Their rotation lacks depth all over, and if any of the starting four go down, then they are in trouble.  The rotation relies extensively on the good health and continued effectiveness of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, both of whom have a short track-record of effectiveness in the minor leagues.  The other two slots are filled by Roberto Hernández and Scott Feldman, who are solid candidates if you are looking for someone who may struggle.

Hernández - by ERA+ - is currently having the third best year of his 10 year career at the age of 34.  His start last night was notable for difficulties keeping the ball down, and he was knocked out of the game after 85 pitches with the bases loaded.  He gave up six hits for a total of 14 bases - including two home runs and two doubles.  Continuing to perform at the level that he has thus far for the entire summer is probably wishful thinking.  But he has been great for the club as the nominal fourth starter so far.  In the last couple of starts, it has been more noticeable that he has had trouble putting hitters away.

Adding to the rotation concerns is Scott Feldman.  He has thrown over 180 innings exactly three times in his 10-year career, and he has been a frequent visitor to the DL, including once last year.  Adding to that are ongoing concerns around effectiveness.  Feldman could turn into a pumpkin at any time - he has little margin for error, and relies heavily on breaking balls and location to be effective.  His ERA+ is the worst of his career at 78 so 2015 has not been kind to him so far, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he profiles best as the long-man on this team.

So the Astros may eventually need three effective starters to stay in the race, and that is reliant on the continued effectiveness and health of Keuchel and McHugh.  Which is far from guaranteed.  Hence the early promotion of McCullers - at least to see whether he could be a useful piece for later in the summer.  The Astros are probably going to give him a good chance to lock up a rotation slot, and clarify some options for later in the summer.  He may stick with the club for much of the rest of the year, even if Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock return, and claim spots in the rotation.

The only caveat would be if the Astros have some kind of inning-limit on McCullers for 2015.  He threw 104-and-two-thirds in his first full year as a pro in 2013, at Quad Cities.  As mentioned earlier, he added another 97 innings last year at Lancaster.  He has 29 frames under his belt this year, so an innings limit of 150-odd would not be surprising.

But if the Astros get 125 innings from McCullers in the Major-Leagues this year, they will be nothing short of delighted.

McCullers will need a 40-man slot, so Lowrie may head to the 60-day DL - a move that was speculated as happening when Preston Tucker was promoted to the 40-man.  Other potential moves include a DFA of someone like Matt Dominguez, Jake Buchanan or Luis Cruz.  Moving Lowrie to the 60-day DL would mean that someone would need to be bumped off the 40-man when he returns, so the Astros may welcome the opportunity for further evaluation before potentially having someone claimed off the 40-man.