Finally, less than one week away from Opening Day, and as a fan, it is so exciting to get baseball back. For over a month now, I have had a blast being able to research and preview a few subjects relating to Houston Astros baseball.
With that being said, my final preview before the season begins will be about the Astros starting rotation. With A.J. Hinch announcing the order, it currently stands as Keuchel starting on opening day, followed by McCullers, Morton, Musgrove, and Fiers.
As those are the five right now, it is still important to mention Collin McHugh. Currently dealing with arm fatigue, McHugh is unlikely to start on the roster, but when he returns, he will definitely start for the team. Last year was not his best, as he ended the year with a 4.34 ERA, a 3.95 FIP, and a 1.408 WHIP.
All of those stats were considerably worse than his 2015 stats. The lone upside to his season was his 8.63 K/9, as he improved over one full point from the year before. His park adjusted stats did not help either, as he had a 91 ERA+, which is well below average.
Looking into 2017, I really don’t think I can expect McHugh to improve from 2016. He peaked in 2014, and coming into the season with arm fatigue, it feels like a season he might struggle to stay healthy, and with that, a year similar to last year statistically.
Getting into the rotation, I’ll start with Keuchel. I think anyone who watches baseball will agree last year was a letdown. Following his Cy Young campaign, he struggled immediately, especially in May.
Any stat you want to look at probably got considerably worse, and then his season ended with shoulder discomfort. Now healthy, it is a little hard to imagine Keuchel getting back to his 2015 form. I do think he will be really good though. Getting his ground ball rate back to 60%, an ERA around 3.50, and a park adjusted ERA(+) around 120.
Moving on to Lance McCullers, his case is a little different than the previous two. After writing a full story about him a few weeks ago, I don’t feel the need to write a lot about him again.
But I will say this, if he can end up staying healthy the entire year, I think he will end up an all-star and the Astros’ best pitcher. All his statistics point to him being an elite pitcher, the issue really is can he stay healthy, and if he does, i think the sky's the limit for him.
Next is Charlie Morton, a first year Astro who previously pitched for the Phillies and Pirates. 2015 and 2016 were not kind to Morton, a primarily ground-ball pitcher, where a poor season was followed by a season ending injury the year after.
The Astros are hoping for the Morton from 2013 and 2014, where he had a 3.26 and 3.72 ERA, respectively. The one thing to look for in Morton is his velocity increase. Before his injury in 2016, his velocity in his two-seam fastball increased over two miles per hour.
It is a little tough to gauge what to expect from Morton. On one hand, with a high groundball rate and an improved velocity, there is a lot to like with Morton. On the other side, we are talking about a pitcher who hasn’t been good in 3 years. My guess is he ends up being a solid middle of the rotation pitcher. Nothing special, but a lot better than a lot of people will expect.
Our last two spots are Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers, and the reason I am grouping both of them together is because one of them will move to the bullpen once McHugh gets back.
The issue is seeing who will be better to start the year. At this point, we know what Mike Fiers is. He was not very good last year, and he doesn’t really fit the ground ball profile that other guys on the rotation have. He is a fly ball pitcher, and a FIP above 4.00 isn’t something that is very intriguing.
Something we can look forward to is how Musgrove will perform in his first full season with the Astros. He was not very impressive in his debut season, with his statistics being similar, albeit a little better, than Fiers, but it is his first full season, and while I do not think he’ll ever be an ace, I do think he can be a solid starting pitcher. My guess is Musgrove wins that job, forcing Fiers to the bullpen.
Overall, I don’t think this will be a top-tier rotation, but it can be a decent one, barring a trade. I think McCullers and Keuchel can form a really good top two starting duo. I think the quality of the rotation comes from the last three spots. I do not think any of the other four guys will suddenly peak, but if one or two of them can turn in sub 4.00 ERAs, it can be a good rotation, and that can help lead this team to the playoffs.