Unorthodox or not, Astros keep finding ways to produce on their own terms
Ever since the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole left via free agency, and Justin Verlander got hurt, the Astros haven't had a true ace on their pitching staff. Yes, I'm aware Zack Greinke is on this team. I'm also very aware of Lance McCullers Jr, and Framber Valdez's respective presences in the rotation. I tend to look at a true "ace" of a pitching staff as a top of the line starter who'll give you at least six to seven innings and/or about 100 pitches per start. ESPN Houston's The Killer B's spoke about this on their show Tuesday. He's always a threat to win 20 games, approach 200 plus strikeouts or more, post a sub three ERA, and always finishes near the top three to five in the Cy Young voting. Keuchel won a Cy Young with the Astros in 2015. Cole finished second to Verlander in the 2019 Cy Young race, narrowly missing out by a 171 to 159 point edge.
None of the current pitchers in the starting rotation are a threat to put up those kinds of numbers. At least not as of this season. Greinke is a solid vet, but he isn't the threat he once was. Valdez has good to great stuff, but he has to prove he can do this on a more consistent basis. McCullers has all the tools to be an ace, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If he and Valdez can stay healthy, improve/fine tune their pitching repertoire, and be more consistent, they both have "ace" written all over them. So if the Astros don't have a true "ace", how are they one of the contenders in the American League to make it to and/or win a World Series?
Most top-notch starting rotations have an ace, a dependable number two, and the rest is a crap shoot. The Astros have three number twos (Greinke, Valdez, McCullers Jr), and a host of number threes and fours. The reason why not having an "ace" is a problem for this team is because their rotation is filled with guys who are secondary starters. A team is lucky to have an "ace", and even more lucky to have a pitcher or two behind that "ace" in order to command control with their rotation. The Astros have managed to do so without an "ace." They've been able to maintain control of first place in their division and stay in relative striking distance of the AL's best record with a rotation by committee. At certain points, they've gone to a six-man rotation whereas most teams utilize a five-man rotation. Having a surplus of starting caliber pitchers has afforded them that luxury.
What it has also afforded the Astros is the ability to interchange parts in their rotation as needed. Whether they've utilized the six-man rotation, or various versions of the traditional five-man rotation, they've navigated the waters to an AL West division lead, while almost guaranteeing a return to the postseason, and positioning themselves for another playoff run. With the moves they made at the trade deadline, they shored up the bullpen, which was once a weakness, and have made themselves into true contenders in the AL.
Would a true "ace" be nice? Of course! Is it an absolute necessity? Maybe not. Only time will tell whether this approach will work or not. I'd deem it a success if this team made it to another ALCS and/or World Series. Anything short of that isn't a failure, but it does speak to the lack of having a true "ace" and what that means to your rotation. This team will still go down as a dynasty for what they've done since 2015. Anything they do now will only add to that legacy. However, winning a ring now would force-feed the haters a big serving of STFU about the cheating scandal, and I'm here for it!