2017 World Series: Lance McCullers Jr. may be better as a bullpen weapon for Astros

Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, the 2017 World Series will begin with Game 1 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros. This is the first pennant since 1988 for the Dodgers. The 'Stros last won the pennant in 2005, when they were an NL team. Now they're representing the AL.

Houston punched their ticket to the World Series with a Game 7 win over the Yankees in the ALCS. The stars of Game 7 were Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr., who combined to curveball their way to a three-hit shutout. McCullers came out of the bullpen to get an old fashioned four-inning save. His final 24 (!) pitches were curveballs.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch went to McCullers, who started Game 4 of the ALCS, out of the bullpen in Game 7 because his regular relief crew hasn't pitched all that well this postseason. Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and Joe Musgrove have combined to give up eight earned runs in 7 2/3 innings in October. Closer Ken Giles has allowed a run in four of his five postseason appearances as well.

Following the Game 7 win, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic caught an exchange between McCullers and Hinch during the clubhouse celebration. From Rosenthal:

Later, McCullers crossed paths with Hinch in a hallway outside the clubhouse, and Hinch jokingly asked if he was ready to pitch in the World Series. "I'm f—— ready," McCullers said. "Game f—— whatever."

"You're so good out of the 'pen, maybe should I move you there," Hinch said.

"Hey, easy," McCullers replied.

Hinch may have been joking, though given the state of the bullpen and McCullers' performance in Game 7, it's fair to at least wonder if McCullers would most help the Astros as a reliever during the World Series rather than as a starter. The Dodgers, as we saw in the NLCS, will wreck a shaky bullpen. The 'Stros need someone out there who can slam the door.

Let's talk this out.

The case for keeping McCullers in the bullpen

Like I said, the regular relief crew (Devenski, Harris, Musgrove, Giles) has not pitched all that well this postseason, so much so that Hinch has steered clear of those guys recently. McCullers went out for the ninth inning in Game 7 even though it appeared he was beginning to tire in the eighth. Giles was warmed up in the bullpen ready to go, yet he never got the call. Trust is waning.

McCullers threw four innings and 54 pitches in Game 7 on Saturday, three days after through six innings and 81 pitches in Game 4. He missed most of the second half with back problems and hasn't thrown more than 83 pitches in a game since July. So, even if he were to start a game during the World Series, it's unlikely he'd be able to pitch particularly deep given his limited pitch count. That means more outs for the problematic middle relief.

Depending on the length of his relief outings, McCullers could, in theory, appear in four World Series games. There's a scenario possible in which he appears in Game 1 or 2 in Los Angeles, two of Games 3-5 in Houston, and Game 6 or 7 back in Los Angeles without throwing back-to-back days. Even if he goes only an inning at a time, Hinch could use him during what he considers the biggest inning of the game. He could make McCullers his moment of truth reliever.

As Dayn Perry detailed, the Astros have options to start Games 3 and 4 of the World Series even without McCullers. Morton has earned another start for sure -- even his short ALCS Game 3 start was more bad luck than good hitting -- plus Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh represent options for Game 4. Bringing Dallas Keuchel back on short rest could be on the table too. There's enough rotation depth available to cover while McCullers does his thing in the bullpen.

The case for letting McCullers start

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Does McCullers help the Astros most as a starter or reliever? USATSI

There are two good reasons to keep McCullers in the rotation. One, when he's right, he's the third best starter on the team behind Keuchel and Justin Verlander. With all due respect to Morton, a healthy and effective McCullers is a better option. Heck, a healthy and effective McCullers is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The guy wasn't an All-Star this season by accident. His first half was incredible.

And two, McCullers has no extended experience as a reliever in pro ball. In fact, he's made only two relief appearances as a big leaguer: Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 7 of the ALCS. That's it. How will he react physically to pitching, say, five times in the span of 12 days? McCullers may not throw as many pitches in relief as he would a starter, but it's more up-and-down work and fewer days to rest. It can be grueling if you're not used to it.

McCullers came out of the bullpen in Game 7 because it was an all-hands-on-deck situation, and he stayed in for the four-inning save because he was so effective. In a perfect world, he'd be the team's No. 3 starter in the postseason and dominate that way. Now that he seems to be over the back trouble, McCullers can be a real weapon for the Astros, and you want your best pitchers starting games.


There is a third option here. McCullers could both start and relieve in the ALCS. The Astros have not yet named their Games 3 and 4 starters, which is similar to how they handled the ALCS. Hinch named his rotation as they went based on his bullpen usage. He figured it out as the series progressed.

The 'Stros could go into the World Series with McCullers prepared to pitch in relief behind Keuchel and Verlander in Games 1 and 2, and if he's not needed -- or he doesn't pitch much in either game -- they could then start him in Game 3 or 4. And if that happens, they could still be a bullpen option in Games 6 and 7.

It is entirely possible we could see McCullers throw an inning or two in relief in Game 1, start Game 4, then give whatever's got left over out of the bullpen in Game 7. That is an option. Hinch has left himself some flexibility, and McCullers has shown he can get outs in relief. And given the state of the team's bullpen, he could make a meaningful difference in the World Series.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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