A couple of weeks ago, former Astros beat writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz tweeted out what he considered to be his all-time starting rotation of a combined Astros/Cardinals pitching staff (he’s now a columnist in St. Louis, thus adding in the Cardinals). And that got me to thinking about what I would consider for that rotation, minus the Cardinals.
My criteria are simple: the pitcher should primarily be thought of as a Astro, or his tenure with the Astros has to have been longer than his tenure with any other team. So that took away Randy Johnson, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Still, I think most people will be pleased by the result.
The first three pitchers I’ll discuss as one unit, primarily because it was thought, at the time, that they would be together as a dominant unit for a long time. I’m talking of course of J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, in that order. Richard was already the most dominating righthander in the NL when Ryan was signed to the then-largest free agent contract in history and Niekro was coming off of a 20-win season. And the rotation order for 1980 was Richard as the ace, Niekro was number two and Ryan number three, the idea being that the knuckleballer pitching between two fireballers would never allow opposing batters to adjust. Of course this rotation only lasted for just half of the 1980 season before disaster struck.
Here are the stats: Richard finished his career with a 107-71 won-loss record and 1,493 strikeouts. He was the first National League right-handed starter to get 300 strikeouts in a season, and he did it twice, in 1978 and 1979. He won 20 games in 1976, and from 1977 through 1979, he won 18 games each year. He was 10-4 with 119 strikeouts in 1980 before suffering a stroke that nearly killed him. He attempted a comeback, but didn’t succeed.
Joe Niekro had a been a bit of a journeyman before landing with the Astros, and though he spent 11 seasons with the team, he didn’t become a full-time starter until the 1978 season. He was one of the preeminent knuckleballers of his time, second only to his brother Phil Niekro who was the ace of the Braves staff. Niekro owns the Astros all-time win record, and his all-time record with the Astros was 144-116. He was the first Astros pitcher with consecutive 20-win seasons, achieving the feat in 1979 and 1980.
There’s probably not much to be said about Nolan Ryan that’s not known by Houstonians. There’s the 300-plus career wins. And he holds the record for most no-hitters and most career strikeouts. In his nine seasons with the Astros, he won 106 games, pitched his fifth no-hitter, and got 1,866 of his 5,714 career strikeouts.
The fourth starter of this rotation would be Roy Oswalt. Oswalt is second only to Niekro with most wins by a Houston pitcher, and in his 10 seasons with the Astros he went 143-82 with 1,593 strikeouts. He was 4-0 in eight postseason starts for the team and was the 2005 NLCS MVP, going 2-0 agains the Cardinals with a 1.29 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 14 innings.
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The fifth starter would be Mike Scott, the man who threw perhaps the most famous game in Astros history, a 1986 no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants that clinched for the Astros the NL West title. Scott was 110-81 in his nine season with the Astros, including that 1986 season where he was 18-10, got 306 strikeouts, won the Cy Young Award and so befuddled the Mets in the NLCS (2-0, 0.50 ERA, 19 strikeouts in 18 innings) that he was named the series MVP despite the Astros losing.
Every team, of course, needs a bullpen, including this one. The closer would be Billy Wagner, who owns the team record with 225 saves while racking up 694 strikeouts. Backing him up in the bullpen would be Dave Smith, second in team history with 199 saves and Brad Lidge, who had 123 saves. Both Smith and Lidge worked in set-up roles before becoming full-time closers, so they’re perfect to go with Wagner.
And to close out the pitching staff would be Larry Dierker (132-117, 1,487 strikeouts in 13 seasons) who would be a spot starter and innings-eater, Darryl Kile (71-65 with 973 strikeouts in seven Astros seasons), and Dallas Keuchel (49-47, 663 strikeouts, and one Cy Young in five seasons with the Astros).
I’m sure there are disagreements, but personally, I think this is a pretty damn good pitching staff.