I know we're just four starts in and you can't make any assumptions in a baseball season until September but maybe just maybe the Astros have found their third starter and he's been right under our nose the whole time.
This is not something the organization had to realize. They've been on the Collin McHugh train since the offseason began. We fans have been slower on the uptake.
The first rumblings came early in the offseason when the team allegedly went after Nathan Eovaldi then James Paxton. They obviously had a number for each in mind that they wouldn't exceed and they lost out to the Red Sox and Yankees on both.
I for one wanted to see them go after Corey Kluber. I dreamed of a rotation of Verlander, Kluber, Cole and then fill in the gaps. Those three at the top of any rotation is the stuff parades are made of. It wasn't realistic to think the Indians wold trade him to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year but I could dream anyway.Can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the Astros would re-sign Dallas Keuchel. My answer every time has been a fervent no. It seems almost inconceivable that a guy who won the Cy Young four years ago and was a number two starter on a World Series team just two years ago is still out of work but he's just not the same dominant guy he was. Not even close. Soft tossing lefties are not in high demand especially ones who are 31 and looking for big money long term deals. His last couple of years have not warranted it. He started 2017 with a 9-0 record. He had shoulder issues and finished the second half with a 5-5 record but more than that, every important stat was worse post all-star break. Maybe that was due to the injury but last year when he was thought to healthy he wasn't much better. He gave up more hits and faced more batters than anyone in the league. His WAR was his second worst since 2013. His K/W was down. His WHIP was up and so on and so on. He's not a top of the rotation guy anymore but wants to be paid like it. The marketplace is telling him it's not going to happen, not unless a good team gets desperate anyway.
In spring training Forest Whitley was all the rave. He looked great and he was ready to come in and assume that role of third starter. One problem: tough to do that from Round Rock and oh by the way he hasn't been all that in his two starts. His second outing on Monday lasted 1 1/3 and he has a 9.95 ERA. No big deal but not something any player wants to look up at on the scoreboard no matter how early in the season. The common thought is that the club will bring him up in June to get that extra year of service. If so it'll be plenty of time for Whitley to get acclimated to the bigs and pitch in some pressure games before the postseason. He's got top of the rotation stuff and could eventually be the ace here but when he does get here he's going to have prove that he's good enough to be the third starter on this staff because Collin McHugh won't relinquish that without a fight.
For whatever reason I just don't believe we've bought into McHugh as a big time starter. Maybe it's because of how he looks. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with his looks but it's not what an overpowering athlete is in 2019. Verlander and Cole look the part, McHugh not so much. But looks can be deceiving. Since he's joined the Astros he's had a winning record every year. He's 57-31. He's had a 19 win season. Some 3rd starters never do that. After going 48-28 over 4 seasons as a starter he was asked to come out of the bullpen and responded with what could have and maybe should have been an all-star season.
One big question coming into this season was whether or not McHugh could pitch deep into games after a year in the pen. He went 3 innings twice all of last season. If he couldn't it would certainly tax a bullpen that looks weaker without him and Brad Peacock. So far though he's gone six innings in 3 of his 4 starts. That could get better but A.J. may have some of the same doubt about him that we do. If your name is Verlander or Cole, A.J. will leave you in until you think you're done. If your name isn't Verlander or Cole he takes you out when he thinks you're done.
It's a long season and there are a bunch of starts left but McHugh has allayed some of the fears many of us had this offseason. He certainly looks the part of a 3rd starter on a championship team so far.
The Astros open their Grapefruit League schedule Saturday against the Washington Nationals at the spring training park they share in West Palm Beach. This does not induce goosebumps but we’ll take it since it means the regular season opener is little more than a month away. In 2017 the Astros moved their spring training base east from Kissimmee, the Nationals moved theirs south from Viera. Dusty Baker was the Nationals’ manager that year. 2017 worked out pretty well for the Astros. Dusty got fired after the 2017 season, which in time worked out pretty well for him too. Two years later the Nationals won their first World Series (no need to recap how). In the four seasons since the Astros and Nationals have been pretty much diametrically opposed. For the Astros it’s been another World Series title, four more American League Championship Series appearances, and three more AL West crowns. For the Nats, four consecutive last place finishes in the National League East. Washington’s 71-91 record last season was its best record of the last four seasons. The Astros certainly expect more excellence in 2023. No one expects the Nationals to not stink again this year. I mean, name three current Nationals. Good luck.
Hope springs eternal
Winning and losing in spring training is of no consequence. We’ll hear stories about “building winning expectations, culture, and environment” and other flim-flam. The team results are meaningless. They are not predictive of the regular season ahead. Best spring training record in Florida last year? The Cardinals, who went on to produce their worst season in 28 years. Best spring training record in Arizona last year? The Angels, who went on to be, the Angels.
Individual player statistics aren’t a big deal either, other than where they help guys win big league jobs. You may recall that for a stretch last spring training, Justin Dirden was all the rage at Astros’ camp. He was pounding the ball, batting over .300 with eye-opening power that produced an OPS over 1.000! Dirden didn’t make the big club and went on to have a poor season at AAA Sugar Land. So results should be taken with many grains of salt, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t developments worth tracking and fun to follow.
Being as good as they are, among non-pitchers the Astros have very few roster spots up for grabs, but here are a couple of spring training storylines…
How will the pendulum swing on Jeremy Pena with his retooled swing? Pena had a solid rookie season followed by a superstar postseason. He was great in spring training last year (see what I mean?) then had a lackluster sophomore season. Leaving the financials out of it, there are several American League shortstops you’d take over Pena for 2024. Corey Seager, Bobby Witt Jr., Bo Bichette, J.P. Crawford, and Gunnar Henderson all were obviously better players last season (note that Carlos Correa is not on that list). Witt, Bichette, and Rookie of the Year winner Henderson are all younger than Pena. If Pena winds up the sixth or seventh-best shortstop in the AL that’s a solid starter, but he needs to make a notable leap if there is star level production in his future.
The disappearance of Pena’s power was near total as last year went along. He hit six home runs by the end of April then just four more the rest of the season, not one after July 5. That said, Pena had a fabulous month of August when he hit .333 while drawing more walks than he did in any two other months combined. If Pena can pair his .324 on base percentage of 2023 (it was .289 in ’22) with 2022’s .426 slugging percentage (which plunged to .381 last year) everyone who roots for the Astros should be pleased. That would not be anything approaching a stud offensive player but fine for a guy who should slot eighth in the batting order. A .760 OPS combined with strong defense is a good shortstop.
It seems few believe in the guy who probably bats ninth opening day, Jake Meyers. That he works cheap is definitely a reason the Astros intend to give Meyers a shot as the primary center fielder. It is simple truth that Meyers has been a lousy offensive player the last two years. In 605 at bats as an Astro he has struck out a whopping 192 times. Nevertheless, Meyers should still give the Astros more production out of the nine-hole than did Martin Maldonado. The defensive metrics say Meyers is an excellent glove man, despite having more of a noodle arm than a rifle.
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A mention that our second season of the Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast is off and running. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics weekly. On our regular schedule the post goes up Monday afternoon. You can get the video version (first part released Monday, second part Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: Stone Cold 'Stros - YouTube with the complete audio available at initial release Monday via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.