The reigning-champion Houston Astros on Friday were brought low by the news that right-hander Luis Garcia, a core member of the rotation, and thus miss the remainder of the 2023 season. Now comes the consequent matter of how to address his absence.
To state the obvious, that won't be easy, particularly a month or so into the regular season. The 26-year-old Garcia has been a steady presence for Houston, as he's pitched to a 3.61 ERA (115 ERA+) and 3.80 K/BB ratio since becoming a staff fixture late in the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season. Over parts of four MLB seasons in Houston, Garcia has made 63 starts and six relief appearances, and that's not counting his six starts and two relief appearances in the postseason. Being that this is early May, it's too soon for any kind of trade market to have crystallized, particularly for a role as terminally coveted as the starting pitcher. That means Houston will need to look internally, at least for now.
Not so long ago, the Astros had rotation depth that was the envy of almost every team. Then Justin Verlander, last year's American League Cy Young winner, departed for the Mets via free agency. Compounding matters is that Lance McCullers Jr. has yet to throw a pitch that counts this season because of an elbow strain, but he's making progress. McCullers recently told reporters that he's been throwing off the mound and is working toward being able to throw breaking balls at full capacity. There's no clear timetable just yet, but there's forward momentum toward a minor-league rehab assignment. Then there's righty José Urquidy, who recently landed on the injured list with shoulder discomfort. It's not yet certain how long he'll be out. All of that has left Houston deeply dependent upon young and most unproved arms and waiting with bated breath for McCullers and Urquidy to return.
For now, that's the only path forward for Houston – a reliance, and perhaps over-reliance, on youth and unknown quantities. Right now, the Astros' five-man rotation includes ace Framber Valdez and the highly capable Cristian Javier. The remaining 60%, however, promises much less certainty.
Twenty-four-year-old right-hander and former fifth-rounder Hunter Brown entered the year as the Astros' top prospect and one of the best overall pitching prospects around. Thus far, he's thrived as a member of the Houston rotation with a 2.60 ERA and more strikeouts than innings pitched. He's also yet to allow a home run this season. Control, however, has been an issue at times, and at some point the home run rate will regress at least a bit.
The big question is whether Brown, who's already made six starts in 2023, can withstand the big ramp-up in workload that likely awaits him. His career-high in innings as a pro is the 126 1/3 frames he registered last season at Triple-A and the majors. As well, of his 30 games pitched, just 16 came as starts. The loss of Garcia means that Brown is no longer a mere stop-gap who's in place until McCullers returns. He now projects as a permanent presence, absent external additions. Brown at the moment is on pace to top 180 innings this season, and that's a significant step up in terms of workload. It's also safe to assume that pitches thrown at the highest-level for a team angling to repeat as World Series champions are a bit more high-stress than those heaved for the 2022 Sugar Land Space Cowboys. As things stand now, the Astros need Brown to carry that weight without injury or any major performance decline. That's a big ask for a rookie.
Also penciled into the rotation is 27-year-old righty Brandon Bielak. A former 11th-rounder out of Notre Dame, he's been an occasional presence on the Houston staff since 2020 with eight starts and 38 relief appearances over that period. Bielak replaced Urquidy on the active roster and pitched out of the bullpen on Monday. However, he's been stretched out at Triple-A and is slated to start Houston's series finale against the Mariners on Sunday.
At Triple-A this season, Bielak has put up a 4.12 ERA and 3.17 K/BB ratio in three starts and two relief appearances. His relief appearance for Houston didn't throw him off his ramp-up, as he worked four innings and threw 81 pitches (two earned with six strikeouts and three walks). For the time being, it wouldn't be surprising if the Astros limited Bielak to two trips through the opposing order. In recent years, he's shown increasing ground-ball tendencies, and Bielak will probably need that trend to continue if he's going to get big-league hitters out with average fastball velocity.
The final piece in the current patchwork rotation is 28-year-old right-hander J.P. France, who's spent parts of five seasons in the Astros' system after being plucked in the 14th round of the 2018 draft out of Mississippi State. France will be the Astros' Saturday starter and hence make his big-league debut against the Mariners. This season, France has a 2.33 ERA in three starts and two relief appearances at Triple-A with 26 strikeouts and 10 unintentional walks in 19 1/3 innings. In his most recent Triple-A start against Reno on April 28, France leaned heavily on his mid-90s fastball and high-80s cutter. In all, he threw five different pitches and got at least one whiff with four of those offerings.
Obviously, elite prospects do not make their MLB debuts at age 28, but France has plus velocity, a full repertoire, and plenty of experience across multiple rungs. He has the potential to be a viable "bridge" for Houston until a more established starter can get healthy. Maybe France turns out to be more than that.
By the end of the weekend, Houston, presently 17-15 and in third place in the AL West, will have used seven starting pitchers this season. That's not a grossly inordinate figure at this juncture, but recent events make it more concerning that it otherwise would be. So what happens if further injuries strike the rotation? Right-hander Forrest Whitley may be the next man up.
If it feels like Whitley, now 25, has been a presence on various and sundry top-prospect lists for the better part of a half-decade, that's because he has. The former No. 17 overall pick and San Antonio native first appeared on such lists not long after being drafted in 2016. The fact that he's yet to reach the highest level suggests he hasn't realized his potential. Over segments of six minor-league seasons, Whitley has an ERA of 5.09 and a K/BB ratio of 2.70. Of his 75 games pitched, 61 have been starts. At Triple-A this season, Whitley has a 6.00 ERA in 21 innings. That's not the desired trajectory, but Whitley's presence on the 40-man roster, his lingering potential, and Houston's current rotation straits may mean he finally gets the call at some point in 2023. Whitley's been dealing with shoulder discomfort, so that situation of course bears monitoring.
The likely path forward is for Houston to tread water until McCullers and or Urquidy return and one of the reinforcements detailed above establishes himself as a lasting presence. Failing all of that – and it's possible all of that will fail – it's probably trade time for the champs. As noted, though, we're still a ways away from the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and rebuilders with moveable rotation pieces probably want the market to play out a bit more before dealing anyone who would measurably help the Astros. So for now, it's in-house solutions for Dusty Baker and the front office with perhaps one eye on the final weeks of July.