THE PALLILOG

How early evidence points to early Astros heavyweight main event

Astros Jeremy Pena, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman
The Astros face the Mets this Saturday! Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images.
Houston Astros ALCS hype: Rising to the next level

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:

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The Astros rotation looks like a strength moving forward. Composite Getty Image.

The Houston Astros are coming off a much-needed series win over the White Sox, but have a quick turnaround as they host the Orioles on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

The 'Stros dropped the first game of the series with Framber Valdez on the mound, but were able to rebound with Hunter Brown and Spencer Arrighetti starting the final two games.

Brown was brilliant once again, and Arrighetti bounced back after a disastrous start against the Tigers over the weekend. Despite all the injures to the Astros staff this season, their young pitchers are stepping up when they need them the most.

Brown has six consecutive quality starts and is beginning to show signs that he can be the top of the rotation pitcher the club always hoped he could develop into.

Arrighetti has stepped in and shown that he belongs in the big leagues, and has provided innings Houston desperately requires with so many pitchers on the injured list.

Speaking of which, with Justin Verlander on the IL, Double A prospect Jake Bloss will make the start for Houston on Friday night. Bloss has quickly progressed through the farm system, having been drafted just a year ago.

We'll see how he performs in his MLB debut, but the club seems to have a lot of quality pitching options moving forward, especially with Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers scheduled to return in late July and early August respectively.

And as we look at the Astros rotation moving forward, perhaps they will go back to a six-man rotation during certain stretches in the second half of the season.

Which could prove to be vital to the team's success. As good as Ronel Blanco has been, he's never pitched as many innings as he'll be asked to pitch this year. Same goes for Arrighetti. And let's face it, sending Verlander out to pitch on four days rest consistently at 41 years old doesn't sound like a wise decision. He's already been on the IL twice this year.

While some see Garcia and McCullers as wild cards to help the team this season, Astros GM Dana Brown doesn't see it that way. He told the Astros flagship station this week that he's counting on those guys to make big contributions when they return. And he's counting on their postseason experience should they get there.

Keep in mind, Garcia has a 3.61 career ERA and has been durable outside the Tommy John surgery. And McCullers has always been good, it's just the health that causes concern.

Garcia is also an example of how a player can skip Double A and Triple A and have success right away in the big leagues. Hopefully, Bloss can follow in his footsteps, since he's bypassing Triple A to make his first start.

So what's the short and long-term outlook for the Astros rotation? And should we expect Verlander to return in 2025?

Be sure to watch the video above as we address those questions and much more!

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