Houston is becoming in greater need of starters

Help wanted: Astros starting pitchers

Astros Gerrit Cole
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With Brad Peacock experiencing a setback in his return from injury, and the Astros counting on his start and sending some recent journeymen back down to AAA, Houston is going to have a couple of intriguing nights in Anaheim to start the four-game series with the Angels.

They have already announced that for tonight's game, they will send Josh James out as an "opener" with the plan to then put in Framber Valdez, who has been downright terrible in his recent starts. With no other real options for Tuesday night, it appears that they will be forced to make that game a bullpen day which could play as a significant detriment to their chances in the series. If they have to expend their strong bullpen arms in the first two games, that may hurt their chances to support their regular starters properly later in the week.

What is the current rotation, exactly? 

Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Wade Miley are firmly in the rotation and the current 1-2-3 of that order, obviously, but is there a firm grasp past that? Brad Peacock appears to have ownership of the fourth spot, but he struggled mightily in June which doesn't exactly instill a lot of faith that he is a lock to stay in the rotation the rest of the season.

In June, Peacock went 1-4 with an ERA of 6.39 after allowing 18 runs over 25.1 innings of work. While some of his struggles may have been a result of his eventual injury which landed him in the IL, the question remains of if he can get back to his early season success to warrant a solidified spot in the rotation. To his credit, he looked good in his rehab assignment, going two scoreless innings while striking out four, but if the Astros end up making a trade, it would not be surprising to see him shift back to the bullpen, especially if the Astros want to be careful with his health.

Collin McHugh is in a weird spot as well. He started the year in the rotation, then went down with an injury before working his way back into a bullpen role. While he looks healthy and normal again, the Astros have not yet made a move to bring him back into a starting role.

Another possibility for Tuesday's game, which is currently up in the air, is that McHugh could make his ninth start of the season. While that may be a possibility, the decision to bring him out of the bullpen in the blowout game on Sunday against the Rangers seems suspicious, because if they had been considering having him start on Tuesday, why waste an inning out of him in that situation? Maybe it was an audition of sorts, to make sure he was ready, or perhaps the current condition of their pitching staff is still so fluid that they had to put in a fresh bullpen arm and he was the next up at the time. We'll find out on Tuesday.

Regardless, it's no question the current rotation is shaky at best in the fourth and fifth slots and gets even more questionable when you consider what could unfold if they add one, or maybe two, new starters into the mix via trade before the July 31st deadline.

Morton and Keuchel are missed

While at the time it was understandable that the Astros didn't shell out the money needed to bring back Charlie Morton, who would sign with the Rays, hindsight so far in 2019 is looking pretty disheartening. Morton is 11-2 so far this season and has the fourth-best ERA of qualified starters at 2.35.

He has been a terrific acquisition for Tampa Bay, and while it's great to see a former teammate succeeding, I'm sure Houston would love to have him behind Verlander and Cole in their rotation to solidify what would be the best rotation in baseball. Another pitcher whose time with Houston ended after 2018, Dallas Keuchel.

Keuchel didn't get picked up until June 7th by the Atlanta Braves and didn't get his first start in the rotation for the big-league team until June 21st. Unlike Morton where there was a more significant divide on if the Astros should have paid what it took to bring him back, Keuchel's demands in the offseason were too high to make sense for Houston.

Still, while it took a couple of games for him to knock the rust off and get up to speed, Keuchel has had three impressive starts in a row, going at least seven innings in each while allowing no more than two runs. He finds himself 3-2 and part of a surging Braves team who could ultimately face the Astros in the World Series, with both clubs on top of their divisions and towards the top of the power rankings.

Win now vs. the future

That leads us to the age-old question: what parts of your future team are you willing to give up to win now? Houston can't get Morton or Keuchel back, so that means they're likely going to be active buyers in the trade market this month. One of the most significant trade pieces the Astros could move, if they choose to make him available, is Kyle Tucker.

Moving Tucker would be the most drastic move and should earn Houston the most drastic reward for this season and beyond. The return should be someone, like Matt Boyd of the Tigers, that they could control for several years, balancing out the level of prospect they send over. If they are, understandably, unwilling to move Tucker, then you have to consider what it would take to get a rental. One such pitcher is Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, who will be in high demand.

It's no question that adding Bumgarner to this rotation would make them extremely dangerous, but it's all a matter of perspective. That would make them solidified for this year, but then what? As of now, with Gerrit Cole still set to be a free agent after this season, the only guarantee the Astros have in terms of reliably successful starters is Justin Verlander.

Sure, they will get Lance McCullers Jr. back next season and maybe the long-awaited call-up of Forrest Whitley, but those are by no means guarantees of a solid rotation. That makes the situation where they'd be willing to give up significant prospects for a rental hard to imagine.

But again, if the price is right, a rental to win this year could make the difference between an ALCS loss and a World Series win. One more thing to consider, though, is that Jeff Lunhow has made some masterful moves recently, both in the acquisitions of Verlander and Cole, which gave Houston a star pitcher while leaving their top prospect collection intact. Does Lunhow have another trade like that up his sleeve for 2019?

Maybe Monday and Tuesday nights' games will end up being great pitching performances for whoever Houston puts out there, and it ends up being a moot point, but even so, the fact remains that the pitching rotation for the rest of 2019, and beyond, has a few question marks to it that need answering.

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