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The Houston Astros reached the World Series last year despite not having their best starting pitcher for most of the postseason. Righty Lance McCullers Jr. suffered a flexor tendon strain in Game 4 of the ALDS, and although the Astros suggested he could rejoin the team later in the postseason, McCullers was left off the ALCS and World Series rosters.

Turns out the injury was worse than the Astros let on. During an appearance on Maanav's Sports Talk with Maanav Gupta, McCullers admitted the injury was "much worse than we were putting off ... I had a pretty good strain in my flexor tendon in my forearm, it was off the bone quite a bit." He added he is "behind" in his rehab work and may not be ready for Opening Day.

"The people I would usually rely on for the rehab, I haven't been able to speak to or communicate with," McCullers said. "It's been a little difficult, I'm not going to lie. The rehab's been a little choppy. I was hoping to be a little bit further along than I am right now, but we have the unfortunate circumstance of being locked out. I'm still trying and still pushing and rehabbing away."

Lance McCullers
SP •
ERA3.16
WHIP1.22
IP162.1
BB76
K185

Teams are not allowed to communicate with 40-man roster players during the owner-initiated lockout, and that includes trainers and medical personnel checking in with players rehabbing from injuries. Some teams set injured players up with rehab facilities prior to the lockout to ensure they received good care, though it's unclear whether the Astros did that with McCullers.

Of course, the elephant in the room is no one knows whether the 2022 season will start on time. MLB has said Opening Day will be delayed and regular season games will be canceled if they do not reach an agreement with the MLBPA by next Monday, Feb. 28. That's not an official deadline -- would they really delay Opening Day if they reach a deal on March 1? -- but that is MLB's position.

The Astros re-signed Justin Verlander to a one-year, $25 million contract with a $25 million player option prior to the lockout. He missed the entire 2021 season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and obviously Houston feels good about his progress to give Verlander such a lucrative contract going into his age-39 season after missing and entire year.

Assuming McCullers will not be ready for Opening Day (whenever it is), Houston will still boast a formidable rotation led by Verlander and lefty Framber Valdez. José Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Jake Odorizzi figure the occupy the other three rotation spots, with righty Cristian Javier a rotation candidate as well.

The Astros went 95-67 last season and both the ZiPS and PECOTA projection systems see them as overwhelming favorites to win the AL West again in 2022. That said, Houston could lose Carlos Correa to free agency, and McCullers may miss time as well. It's also unclear how effective Verlander at his age and coming off a major arm injury.