Astros Rotation Depth a Hedge Against Injuries

The Astros get Justin Verlander for a full season this year bolstering a deep starting rotation.
The Astros get Justin Verlander for a full season this year bolstering a deep starting rotation. Photo by Eric Sauseda
The rich got richer this offseason and, for once, that included the Astros. The addition of Gerrit Cole to an already deep pitching rotation that will hopefully include a full year from Justin Verlander gives the 'Stros, arguably, the most formidable rotation in baseball. Getting Cole certainly bolsters a talented lineup, but there is more to landing him than just putting another good arm on the mound every five games.

Cole represents real depth on a team that played more games than any other team in baseball last year. Winning the World Series means having the shortest offseason, something any team would gladly trade for potential struggles the following season. But, if the Astros are serious about being good for more than just one season, they need health across the board.

It's no coincidence that manager A.J. Hinch has experimented with moving infielders to different spots on the diamond during spring training. Giving different players reps at different positions provides greater flexibility in case of an injury like the one that will sideline Yuli Gurriel for the first couple weeks of the season. In similar fashion, adding to the talent pool in the starting rotation not only hedges against injuries but bolsters a somewhat suspect bullpen.

Lance McCullers, Jr., projected as the team's fourth starter, has one of the nastiest curve balls in baseball, but he's never come close to pitching a full season. His career high in innings pitched is only 125 and he missed nearly the entire postseason with injuries. It is safe to assume he won't suddenly turn into an iron man this season. Likewise, Dallas Keuchel has pitched 200 innings only twice in his career including his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2015. He only appeared in 23 games in 2018 despite being excellent in the postseason. Cole is coming off the most durable season of his career having pitched in 33 games and over 200 innings, but he's just one season removed from an injury-plagued 2016.

The only workhorse starter has been Verlander, who has pitched more than 200 innings all but two seasons of his 13-year career. Still he is 35 years old and the only opponent that remains undefeated in all of sports is age.

This is the benefit of having a rotation that is six pitchers deep. After Verlander, Keuchel, Cole and McCullers, you have World Series hero Charlie Morton as your fifth starter, a guy who would probably be a second or third on many rotations in the AL, followed by Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh, both regular Astros starters the past four seasons.

It also benefits the bullpen, adding a pair of long relievers. This will be particularly beneficial early in the season. In 2017, the Astros saddled Chris Devenski with far too many innings in the first half of the year. He clearly suffered with fatigue down the stretch and into the postseason. Taking some of the burden off him should help in the long run and simply give them more options and rest for all their pitchers.

The hope is everyone will have perfect health and they will roll through another season on the way to a second straight title. But, given the unlikeliness of that scenario, the best bet is to make sure you have a safety net when and if something goes wrong. Perhaps no other team in baseball is better prepared for nearly any contingency, especially in the rotation.

The Astros may have gotten better in the offseason, but, more importantly, they got better where they needed it most.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke