Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Setbacks of Francis Martes and David Paulino

Tuesday's clash against the Mariners will be the Astros fifth straight game without an off-day, and will be the first time that the squad has had to go beyond its five man opening day roster to find another starting pitcher. Let us first note how remarkable this is.  As of Friday, 304 men had started a game in the major leagues this year. That's an average of over 10 starters per team Even if you take the Tampa Bay Rays and all of their "openers" out of the equation (they've had 15 different starting pitchers), each team has averaged 9.96 different starting pitchers.  The Astros have used only 5.

Here's to having good starting pitchers, their health, and a speedy recovery for Lance McCullers.

On Friday, AJ Hinch announced that Tuesday's start would likely be a bullpen start.
Several factors are driving team management to this decision. 1)  The closeness to the September roster expansion means the team may have to do a bullpen start only once more this season. 2)  The closeness to October (and quit your yapping, we're going, this week's games be damned) has prompted the team to want Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock to remain in the bullpen and on routine, and 3.  the lack of a reliable option from Fresno. There is no clear candidate on the Fresno roster, though it is of course possible that they bring up that day's scheduled Grizlies starter and see if he can get through the Ms lineup two times.

Earlier this month, right after McCullers went on the DL, GM Jeff Luhnow gave a list of potential minor league candidates to take McCullers's place in the rotation.

To me, the most notable thing about Luhnow's list is the names that it does not include--Francis Martes and David Paulino. Both had started a handful of games in the majors in 2017 filling in for injured starting pitchers.  While both had graduated from prospect rankings, both had been ranked going into the 2017 season. Martes was a consensus top 30 prospect and Paulino was ranked in the top by 60 by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline (though Baseball Prospectus was more bearish, ranking Paulino 83rd).

Both started the year in Fresno, ready to answer the alarm if and when an Astros starter went on the DL, or a hard thrower was needed to make some bullpen appearances.  But the alarm never rang, and based on the seasons by these two, that turned out to be a good thing.

Martes never was able to harness his command while on the mound in 2018. At Fresno, he walked nearly a batter an inning--17 bases on balls in 18 2/3 IP.  The Astros thought they had found the culprit--injury. After only 4 stats, the Astros places Martes on the disabled list. But, as reported by Jake Kaplan in The Athletic,  tests showed no structural damage.  By early August, Martes was working his way back to the rotation when he had a "setback" while re-habbing in West Palm Beach. The setback turned into Tommy John surgery, and a 12-16 month recovery that will keep Martes out of the Astros plans in not only the rest of 2018, but also 2019 as well.

For Paulino, the story is similar, even if the end is different. Paulino was placed on the DL at the beginning of the Triple-A season. He returned to pitching in early May, and was ineffective. Paulino gave up 12 runs (11 earned) in 16 innings across four starts in Fresno. Paulino then returned to the DL, making 3 rehab appearances in the Gulf Coast League. And then, Paulino was traded along with Hector Perez and Ken Giles in the deal to acquire Roberto Osuna (whose value had dropped after details of his arrest for domestic violence against his girl friend came to light). Paulino has remained on rehab assignment with the Blue Jays.

In short, Martes and Paulino have gone from the doorstep of the majors with a chance to establish themselves as bonafide major leaguers to career crossroads in a short period of time. This year has been a disaster of epic proportions from the standpoint of both players

From an Astros standpoint, the travails of Martes and Paulino have had a more muted effect in 2018. The health and quality of the team's starting pitchers--as well as the development of Cionel Perez--has meant that the setbacks experienced by Martes and Paulino has not affected the major league squad so far.

But the impact of their lost seasons might be felt in 2019. Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are both free agents at the end of this season, which will open up two spots in the starting rotation. With one injured and the other north of the border, Martes and Paulino are not candidates to fill it. Combine their setbacks with the frustrating season of Forrest Whitley (bizarre PED suspension, injuries), the Astros may lack an internal candidate to fill one of those vacancies in April 2019. Without a "cheap" option to fill those two spaces, the team may have to turn to the free agent market to find starters, either by re-signing Morton and/or Kuechel, or by identifying a player on another team to join the Astros rotation. This is, of course, not a cheap proposition.  The real cost of Martes's injury and Paulino's trip to Toronto is less their individual lack of development, than in compelling the Astros to spend a greater share of resources on their rotation in 2019.