Astros Week: How Long Can the Pitching Staff Hold Out?

Thank God for Framber Valdez.
Thank God for Framber Valdez. Photo by Jack Gorman
Now a third of the way through the season, the Astros still find them looking up in the AL West standings at a Texas team that is putting up massive offensive numbers. But, at just three-and-a-half games back, there is more than enough time for the Rangers to regress and the Astros to overtake them if they want to win yet another division title.

There is a small problem: pitching. Despite being one of the best rotations and bullpens in baseball, this is a patchwork lineup filled with guys who were never supposed to be pitching for the team this year, at least not as consistent parts of the lineup. The bats are starting to come around and the bullpen remains rock solid, but how will the Astros make it through an entire season (nevermind the playoffs) with these guys?

Let's take a look at who they have, who they might get later and what it all means.

The Starters

Only two of the Astros five starters to open last season remain active. Justin Verlander moved on to the Mets and Jake Odorizzi was playing for the Rangers before suffering an injury that will cost him the entire season (side note: the Rangers pitching staff isn't doing all that great either). Currently, only Framber Valdez and Christian Javier are in the rotation. Thankfully, after a late-season call up, Hunter Brown has proceeded to live up to his rookie status and is solid as the third starter. But, there are worries that a heavy load for a kid who has never thrown more than 130 innings could be problematic as the season goes on, particularly in a year where starting pitching is being decimated by injuries.

The Injured List

There is a pretty solid starting rotation on the IL for the Astros at the moment. Lance McCullers, Jr. recently suffered a setback to the injury that has so far cost him the entire season. Jose Urquidy isn't expected to return from his injury until the All-Star break and Luis Garcia is gone for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Only one of those guys appears poised to come back within the next month.

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J.P. France has been a life saver for the Astros.
Photo by Jack Gorman
The Call Ups

Every year, it seems the team's farm system is ranked at the bottom of the league, but what they lack in depth, they certainly have made up for with impressive top line starters. And while no one is considering Brandon Bielak or J.P. France as aces or even top three starters, the fact that they have come in and effectively replaced both Urquidy and Garcia is impressive. That the Astros have one of the best ERAs in baseball is nothing short of jaw dropping. Now, if they can stretch Ronel Blanco to help them fill the gaps during long stretches without a day off, their pitching coaches will deserve a hell of a raise.

The Prospects

This is where things get really murky. The Astros only have two starting pitchers left on their 40-man roster who haven't been called up. Forest Whitley, who appeared to be next in line, is injured yet again. That only leaves Shawn Dubin, a 27-year-old righty with an ERA north of six at Sugar Land as an option. If they were to bring up someone from the minors not on the 40-man, they would have to place one of the other players on waivers, not a great proposition. That is assuming anyone is worthy of the call up. At the moment, their best pitching prospect not playing at the major league level is Spencer Arrighetti, a hard throwing right hander playing at Double A Corpus Christi.

The Potential Acquisitions

So, the trade deadline is still two months away, but no doubt GM Dana Brown is already considering his options. He has said recently that they will likely need to acquire an arm at the deadline. The question is, who will be available? So many teams are in the hunt for the post season, it might take another month before we know who will be buyers and who will be sellers, and whether or not pitchers worth getting might be on the block. Then there is the small problem of that minor league depth. There is some talent, but how much will the Astros be willing to give up?
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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