Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Miley Signing Opens the 2020 Rotation to the Astros Pitching Prospects

After a long, dark winter of little player movement, the Astros finally struck on Thursday afternoon, signing Wade Miley to a 1 year, $4.5 million contract. Astros Twitter will now have to decide between Hannah Montana, Party in the USA, and Wrecking Ball gifs to highlight Miley's accomplishments in 2019.

Miley enters a starting rotation that is revamped from last season. Miley should slot behind Collin McHugh as the #4 starter to open the season. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will anchor the rotation, while Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Brad Peacock will fight for the 5th starter's job in Spring Training.

Miley is likely to be around league average as a starting pitcher. Steamer projects him to have a 4.36 ERA.  Miley is durable as a starter, and he had a great 2018 season (2.57 ERA in 16 starts for the Brewers). Miley's 2018 was marked by his development of a cut fastball, which became his best pitch.

The optimistic case for Astros fans is that Miley's new pitch, his change of pitch mix (more curveballs and changeups, almost no sliders) and the Astros excellent reputation for player development make the 2018 season closer to reality. The pessimists case is that Miley's pedestrian K/BB rate (50/27 in 80 2/3 IP) and his more modest FIP and xFIP (3.59 and 4.40 respectively) signal that he is league average pitcher who benefited from BABIP luck.

But the most telling part of the move to sign Miley is that it is for one season only. The Astros did not identify a starter to acquire--either through trade or free agency--who is under team control for multiple years. The four starters who are penciled into the rotation for 2019 (Verlander, Cole, McHugh, and Miley) will all become free agents at the end of the season.

What will the starting rotation be like in 2020?  We don't really know. 

But the Miley signing provides a clue. The Astros have a passel of starting pitching prospects. Josh James has already reached the majors and pitched in the playoffs last season. Forrest Whitley is the top pitching prospect in baseball, as demonstrated by his domination of the Arizona Fall League. JB Bukaukas, the team's 2017 1st round draft pick, jumped 5 levels across 59 excellent innings last season (2.14 ERA). Corbin Martin had a 2.97 ERA and a 3.43 K/BB ratio in AA Corpus Christi last season.

Each of these four is a promising prospects who looks like he can take a rotation spot sometime in the near future. Whitley, James, and Bukaukas made the top 100 prospects lists for both MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus. Martin's impressive 2018 has put him in contention to make the majors in 2019, and, if things break right, compete for a rotation spot in 2020.

Well, problem solved, you might say. You get a bunch of young cost-controlled rotation pieces and that allows the front office to shift more money to the lineup, where extensions, free agency, and arbitration raises will increase demands on payroll. Extend one of Verlander and Cole, get McCullers back on the bump after rehab and start planning the parade.

But this is the optimists case.  It is worth making, because it represents a possible scenario for the Astros medium term future.  The the realists case is that things happen, especially to pitching prospects. A year ago we expected Whitley to make his major league debut in 2018, and, optimists thought he would pitch in the playoffs.  But a drug suspension and two trips to the DL kept Whitley in the minors throughout the season. And that's a good scenario, because none of Whitley's 2018 problems seem to be long-lasting. More ominous scenarios--often involving Tommy John surgery--lurk around the corner for every pitcher at every level of baseball.

The Astros will need at least two of their prospects to develop enough in 2019 to join the rotation in 2020.  Three would be a massive ask, but would also represent a potential scenario. But no prospect is guaranteed (as good as someone like Whitley looks). The 2020 rotation has massive uncertainty right now.

The Wade Miley signing may well help the Astros in 2019. And regardless of the quality of his pitching, Miley will eat innings and let the offense do its thing. But the signing puts even more pressure on the front office to make good decisions in the 2019 off-season, when they must make remake their entire rotation.

The best hope for the Astros is that some of their pitching prospects develop enough this season that they can join the rotation in 2020.  In fact, it is no longer the hope; it is a necessity.