The next major sign post on the road to the Astros’ regular season arrives Saturday with the spring training opener. If predicting the 2023 World Series matchup you could do a lot worse than casting your lot with an Astros-Mets Fall Classic. The Astros will meet the Mets in a decidedly lesser matchup Saturday at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. As fun as it might be to have just-turned-40 years old Justin Verlander throw his first pitch as a Met against the Astros, he won’t be making the bus trip south. In fact, the minimum number of legit Mets required to be in West Palm Beach figure to be on hand since the Mets are splitting their squad for the day with more notables certainly staying in Port St. Lucie for their home preseason opener.
So no Verlander mound sighting Saturday at the Astros game. Of much more significance, no Lance McCullers Jr. sighting on the mound at an Astros game for some time to come. This is not a surprise given Lance’s injury plagued career, but it’s still a bummer. Unless you’re Hunter Brown that is, since Brown now has a clear runway to fly in the Astros’ starting rotation out of the gate. McCullers is in season two of the five year 85 million dollar contract extension he signed in March 2021 that kicked in last season. Simple math tells you that’s 17 million dollars per season. Last season he made eight starts. They are calling it a mild elbow muscle strain, but the Astros have been publicly overly optimistic re: injuries in the past. We shall see. If McCullers can be healthy to join the rotation by May 1 that would be fine. He’s obviously just not built to be a durable workhorse. Only once in his career has McCullers answered the bell for more than 22 starts in a season (2021), only once has he thrown 130 innings in a season (also 2021). And that workload wrecked the majority of his 2022.
Hunter Brown flashed phenomenally in his first taste of the big leagues. Albeit over just 20 1/3 innings, a 0.89 earned run average seems decent. The simplest factor that will determine Brown’s ceiling is his ability to throw strikes. His stuff is unquestioned, but walking 45 batters in 106 innings (his numbers at AAA Sugar Land last year) is a tough ratio with which to be elite. There’s a good chance you saw the side-by-side clip in which Brown’s windup looked like a carbon copy of Justin Verlander’s.
There is a virtual zero chance Brown becomes Verlander. Brown has never shown the command of Verlander which has helped JV ascend near the level of Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver, two of the greatest power/control pitchers ever. Still, even if Brown peaks as a mid-rotation starter, the Astros have tremendous multi-year value with Brown ineligible for salary arbitration until the 2026 season.
Hunter Brown is 24 years old. When Verlander was 24 he went 18-6 for the Tigers and made his first All-Star team. In Clemens’s 24-year-old season, he won 20 games and his second consecutive Cy Young Award. When Seaver was 24 he won 25 games and led the Miracle Mets to the 1969 World Series title.
Slim and trim
Good to hear Martin Maldonado dropped about 15 pounds in the offseason. He won’t be stealing bases or legging out many infield hits, but if it helps him be a little more mobile behind the plate, that’s a good thing. Maldonado led the Major Leagues in passed balls last season. Along with age and playing through a hernia that was surgically repaired in the offseason, carrying extra weight didn’t make Maldy’s job any easier. In what is likely not entirely a coincidence re: the weight loss, Maldonado is in the last year of his contract. He turns 37 in August. If there is more juice to be squeezed from his career beyond 2023, being in better shape can only aid the cause.
Bad to hear Yordan Alvarez’s left hand is bothering him some, though it seems much more minor than McCullers's situation. The Cuban Missile Launcher had an issue with each hand during the course of last season.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as: