Verlander, Cole and... Three Options for the Astros Rotation in 2019

Justin Verlander picked up his 200th win on Sunday and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Justin Verlander picked up his 200th win on Sunday and it couldn't have come at a better time. Photo by Jack Gorman

click to enlarge Justin Verlander picked up his 200th win on Sunday and it couldn't have come at a better time. - PHOTO BY JACK GORMAN
Justin Verlander picked up his 200th win on Sunday and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Photo by Jack Gorman
On Wednesday, it was announced that Justin Verlander was just edged out in the Cy Young voting for the 2018 season, coming in second to Tampa Bay youngster Blake Snell. Verlander led one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, a lineup that included Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, Jr.

Unfortunately this offseason, the Astros have lost McCullers to Tommy John surgery — he'll miss the entire 2019 season — and Keuchel is almost certain to leave via free agency — he, not surprisingly, declined the Astros qualifying offer early this week. Morton is also a free agent leaving the 'Stros with only two of their starters from last season under contract.

The question for Jeff Lunhow and the Astros front office is how to replenish their rotation at a time when the team will remain in contention for at least a few more seasons. At this point, they would seem to have three options.

Build from Within

Both Josh James and Framber Valdez had promising starts for the club at the end of last season. James, in particular, has the kind of heat on his fastball and movement on his breaking pitches the Astros love. And Valdez could be a lefty to replace Keuchel. Then there's Forrest Whitley. After missing 50 games due to a minor league drug suspension and another batch of games on the DL last season, the 2016 first round pick is playing in the Arizona fall league to catch up. He remains one of the organization's top prospects.

As tempting as it might be to plug in a couple of youngsters, the Astros will want to make sure they aren't too exposed by rookies in the rotation. Reliability is critical for a team looking to get back to the World Series. At the end of the five-man rotation, there is likely a spot for one of these guys — maybe another in the bullpen — but don't expect Lunhow to rush their youngsters to the bigs unless they are ready.

Make a Metrics-Driven Move

No one really expected Morton, a guy who had struggled with injury and was on the wrong side of 30, to be the kind of productive pitcher the Astros discovered in him when they signed Morton in 2017. But he has been exceptional for them given the circumstances. The same goes for Colin McHugh, who is now one of the club's most reliable relievers. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see Lunhow make a deal for a pitcher that makes fans say, "I'm sorry, who?" It's those kind of low-risk-high-reward deals that the Astros love and have helped them to be the team they are today.

Go Big on a Trade

There are reports that guys like Corey Kluber (Cleveland) and Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco) are available at the right price. Bumbarner would cost less because he is in the last year of his deal. Kluber would likely mean dealing either Whitley or Kyle Tucker. But either would be an upgrade over even what they had last season at their number three rotation guy, Keuchel.

The Astros don't have one of the top three or four farm systems in the majors, but they do have one that is quite deep. And they have demonstrated their willingness to make the big move to improve. Don't expect them to be sitting on their hands (or Jim Crane's wallet) in the Hot Stove League this winter.
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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