Verlander’s Injury Spotlights Question Marks in Astros’ Rotation

Sunday afternoon was a worrisome one for the Astros, as Justin Verlander made an early departure from his Grapefruit League start against the Mets, complaining of right triceps soreness. While manager Dusty Baker said the move was precautionary, the 37-year-old righty underwent an MRI on Monday, which revealed not a triceps injury but a strain of his latissimus dorsi, albeit a minor one. Even if it’s not a major injury, any potential sidelining of the two-time Cy Young winner highlights the uncertainty within an Astros’ rotation hit hard by free agency.

Coming off a season in which he brought home that long-sought second Cy Young award on the strength of a 21-6 record, 2.58 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 300 strikeouts, and 6.4 WAR, Verlander waited until January to begin his offseason throwing program, and lately, his spring has not gone as planned. He was scratched from his February 27 start due to discomfort in his right groin, instead throwing a simulated game. After getting roughed up over the course of 2.2 innings and 53 pitches — but touching 97 mph with his fastball — against the Cardinals on March 3, he was scheduled to go four innings on Sunday against the Mets. He held them scoreless for two innings while throwing 29 pitches, but after his second inning, informed pitching coach Brent Strom that he was experiencing triceps soreness. Via MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

“We don’t know if he is hurt,” Baker said. “Like I said, it’s precautionary. I was surprised his velocity [91-94 mph] was down a tick from the last time, but you know Verlander can dial it up when he gets ready. We didn’t see anything. I was quite surprised when Strommy came over and told me he had to come out of the game.”

The results of the MRI showed what general manager James Click called “a mild lat strain”; Click portrayed the news as “on the positive side.” Even so, Verlander has been shut down, with no timetable at the moment, and the fear is that he could be in for a repeat of 2015. Through the first 10 seasons of his major league career, he had never landed on the disabled list, but triceps cramping, followed by a triceps strain as he ramped up his activity level, kept him out of action until June 13 of that year. Reviewing reports of his problems that spring, it appears that the Tigers and the pitcher were slow to take his initial discomfort seriously, and it was subsequently noted that Verlander also suffered a lat strain at some point during rehab, which prolonged his absence. In all, he made just 20 starts totaling 133.1 innings in 2015, the only time in 14 full seasons that he hasn’t gone to the post at least 32 times.

Verlander may not be sidelined as long this time, but any kind of shutdown would almost certainly force him to the injured list to start the season; as the pitcher told reporters, “It would probably take a miracle to be back before Opening Day.” That throws the spotlight on a rotation that ain’t what it used to be given the free agent departures of Gerrit Cole (who signed a nine-year, $315 million deal with the Yankees) and Wade Miley (who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Reds). Cole outpitched Verlander in just about every category in 2019, posting a 2.50 ERA and 2.64 FIP with 326 strikeouts in 212.1 innings en route to 7.4 WAR, while Miley turned in a 3.98 ERA and 4.51 FIP in 167.1 innings, good for 2.0 WAR. With their departures, and that of Collin McHugh, who made eight starts from among his 35 appearances and recently signed with the Red Sox, the Astros have just one returning pitcher besides Verlander who gave them at least 71 innings last year, namely swingman Brad Peacock, who made 15 starts and eight relief appearances totaling 91.2 innings.

Thus, the rotation that owned the AL’s lowest ERA (3.61) and second-lowest FIP (3.81) as well as its highest WAR (19.3) was already going to have a very different look to it than in 2019. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Zack Greinke, who made 10 starts for the Astros after being acquired from the Diamondbacks on July 31, will be around from wire to wire, that after putting together a 5.4-WAR season (his highest since his Cy Young-winning 2009) with 208.2 innings worth of 2.93 ERA/3.22 FIP work. The 36-year-old righty has strung together three straight seasons of 200 innings, and five in the past six years.

(Aside: it’s worth raising an eyebrow at Greinke’s Depth Charts projection for a 4.08 ERA and 4.24 FIP, with 1.5 homers allowed per nine. He served up just 0.91 homers per nine last year, an eyelash away from a career mark compiled across 2,872 innings, and maxed out at 1.21 per nine in 2018. When I asked ZiPSmaster Dan Szymborski about the projection, he suggested that Greinke was rather homer-lucky last year and that his age, hard-hit rate, change in strikeout rate, and lower velocity — not to mention the league’s skyrocketing home run rate — could all be factors in his regression-heavy projection. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Greinke’s 0.81 gap between his ERA and his 3.74 xFIP was his largest since 2015 and placed him in the 79th percentile among ERA qualifiers.)

Besides Greinke, the Astros are counting on a major contribution from Lance McCullers Jr., who missed all of last season after undergoing November 2018 Tommy John surgery. The 26-year-old McCullers pitched to a 3.86 ERA and 3.50 FIP in 128.1 innings in 2018, and is forecast for a similar performance, though his 138 innings in our current Depth Charts projections would represent a career high. In his four major league seasons, he’s never topped 22 starts; his 2018 innings total represents his major league high, while his 155.2 combined innings between Houston and Double-A Corpus Christi was his professional high. All of which is to say that even if he remains healthy — a challenge that proved difficult even before surgery, with his shoulder (2016) and lower back (’17) representing other trouble spots besides his elbow — he won’t throw a full complement of innings.

Behind those two and Verlander is a grab bag of potential contributors, none of whom has anything close to a full major league season under his belt. The closest is Peacock, a 32-year-old righty who has thrown as many as 24 starts in a season, though that was back in 2014; he also made 21 in ’17. Right now, not only is he earmarked for the bullpen, but he’s behind schedule after suffering a recurrence of the nerve damage issues in his neck that played a part in what was initially reported as shoulder discomfort last year. Peacock spent most of the first three months of the season in the Astros’ rotation, but was limited to six regular season relief appearances thereafter. He just threw his first bullpen session of the spring this past Wednesday, and so doesn’t figure to be built up as a starter until later this season, if at all. Given his career-long troubles against lefties, he might make sense as an opener, however, a role he served in Game 6 of last year’s ALCS against the Yankees.

The pitcher expected to make the largest innings contribution besides Greinke and Verlander is Jose Urquidy, a going-on-25-year-old righty who made seven starts and two relief appearances totaling 41 innings (3.95 ERA, 3.68 FIP) during the regular season, and added three relief appearances and an impressive start — five shutout innings in Game 5 of the World Series — in the postseason. Known as Jose Luis Hernandez prior to 2019, Urquidy had never pitched above High-A until last season; he recently placed at number 101 on our recent Top Prospects list, where as Eric Longenhagen noted, his fastball velocity jumped from 89-93 in 2018 to 92-95 in ’19, and he added a second breaking ball. Urquidy has a plus changeup and plus command, as evidenced by last year’s 4.9% walk rate in the minors and 4.2% in the majors. He projects to provide the Astros with work around the league average (4.51 ERA, 4.60 FIP), though the 150 innings we have him penciled in for would be a career high, topping last year’s regular season total of 144 across three levels.

Leading the fifth starter battle is Josh James, a heat-throwing 27-year-old righty who spent last year in the Astros’ bullpen, where he posted a 4.70 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 61.1 innings while striking out 37.6% and walking 13.2%. James grazed last year’s Top 100 Prospects list at number 98 but missed out on rotation work due to a late-February quad strain. Here’s what our prospect team said about him last year:

James’ secondaries can sometimes be easy to identify out of his hand, but purely based on movement, they’re both plus. His command may limit him to a relief role, or at least a starting role that carries fewer innings than is typical, but he has high-leverage big league stuff, and was perhaps 2018’s biggest prospect surprise.

Workload-wise, James threw a combined 137.1 innings across three levels (including 23 in the majors) in 2018 but just 64.2 last year, which again means that he won’t come close to a full complement of innings; we have him estimated at 103 frames as a starter plus another 25 out of the bullpen this year.

Also competing for the five spot are Framber Valdez, a 26-year-old lefty, and Austin Pruitt, a 30-year-old righty. Valdez made eight starts and 18 relief appearances for the Astros last year, totaling 70.2 innings, but was lit for a 5.86 ERA and 4.98 FIP. While he owns a plus curveball as well as a fastball that can touch 96 mph, his 40-grade command showed itself last year, when he walked 13.7% of hitters while striking out just 20.7%. Unless he can do a better job of handling righties (who hit .291/.373/.461 off him in 2019), he’s most likely a bullpen or depth piece. Pruitt, a Houston-area native who was acquired in a minor trade with the Rays in January, split his 2019 season between Triple-A and the majors. Though he started only twice from among his 14 appearances with Tampa Bay, he threw four innings or more four additional times in relief of an opener, and finished with a 4.40 ERA and 4.26 FIP while generating a 52.2% groundball rate in 47 innings. He, too, could use a solution as to how to handle righties, who have raked at a .314/.351/.498 clip across 487 PA spread over three seasons.

At the very edge of the frame in the Astros’ rotation picture is Forrest Whitley, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-7 righty who still rates as the team’s top prospect, and number 15 overall, despite what was mostly a lost 2019 season. Whitley’s raw stuff — a 93-97 mph fastball that can touch 99, a curve and changeup that both rate among the minors’ best, and an above-average slider and changeup — is outstanding, but last year, he battled “shoulder fatigue, control problems, and what looked like a conditioning regression,” according to Longenhagen. He finished with a ghastly 7.99 ERA in 59.2 minor league innings, and while he struck out 30.9% of all hitters, he walked 15.8%.

Whitley reported to camp at 230 pounds, 40 more than two years ago, and has been on a very limited workload as the Astros attempt to recover his luster. “Whitley was not ready to come into camp physically and compete for a position, for whatever reason, in my opinion,” Strom told the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome recently. “So we had to slow-walk him a little bit.” After Whitley failed to impress in his first live batting practice session of spring, Strom and company “went in and looked at what made him successful to get drafted.” His new delivery uses “an arm swing he hadn’t used since high school,” and while the pitching coach remains “very excited” for Whitley’s future, he’s clearly a work in progress right now.

Add it all up, and that’s quite a handful of question marks for a team that won 107 games last year. It’s fair to wonder how much the Astros’ lack of depth owes to its embattled front office, which spent most of the offseason under a cloud during MLB’s investigation into the Astros’ sign-stealing. President of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow was suspended and then fired in mid-January, when commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report. Click, who was plucked from the Rays’ front office to become general manager in early February, has yet to add anybody to the organization who might figure in as a starter, and may need to see if a veteran arm shakes loose later this month as teams trim down to 26-man rosters. For what it’s worth, McHugh, who battled elbow soreness and spent two extended stints on the injured list last year, didn’t sign with the Red Sox until earlier this month, and won’t be ready to start the regular season, so it’s tough to ding the Astros too hard for his departure.

Regardless of the outcome with Verlander, nobody is going to weep for the Astros. They’ve painted targets on their own backs with their sign-stealing exploits and their poorly-handled apology tour, but none of that will affect the team’s personnel and its 2019 chances to the extent that a potential Verlander absence could.

This post has been updated in light of the reporting of Verlander’s MRI results and Click’s comments.

We hoped you liked reading Verlander’s Injury Spotlights Question Marks in Astros’ Rotation by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Original Greaser Bob
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Original Greaser Bob

Wow Dusty isn’t wasting anytime. J/K but seriously towel drill.