Lance McCullers is coming back to the Astros active roster this Friday, after starting the season on the disabled list due to shoulder pain that kept him from participating in spring training. After a rehab assignment in the minors and his last bullpen session on Tuesday, the young pitcher felt ready to rejoin the team, and is slated to start in place of Collin McHugh this Friday, behind Dallas Keuchel, giving McHugh an extra day of rest, and adding another pitcher to the starting rotation. Hinch today announced the starting rotation would move forward with 6 for the time being.
McCullers will be a welcome addition to bring more stability and better depth into the starting rotation, something desperately needed this season with an inexplicably bad start in the starting pitching in the first month of the season. Even Keuchel, the Astros ace, hasn’t been able to put in consistent starts. I would opine that a weaker start was somewhat expected, with McCullers starting out on the DL, but it has been a lot rougher than anticipated. Hopefully McCullers can shake off the rust with relative ease (his last start in the MLB was in October 2015) and hit the ground running.
Originally, there had been a lot of speculation about whether Mike Fiers or newcomer Chris Devenski would be bumped down to the bullpen to make room for McCullers. Fiers, who has struggled in starts this year (along with pretty much every other pitcher in the starting rotation) has gained some traction and settled into the game. Devenski, in his rookie season in the MLB, was brought into the bullpen as a middle reliever, but made a strong case to be added to the starting rotation with a commanding stance the mound behind his 4 seam fastball.
Eventually, Devenski made the transition to the starting rotation, and has quickly become the most consistent starting rotation pitcher out of the 5. It’s hard to call him the best pitcher out of the starting rotation with just 3 starts (although they were 3 quality starts), but Devenski boasts the best starting rotation ERA (1.72) and is quickly making a case for himself to be a permanent fixture in the starting rotation. For this reason, as well as Fiers improving in his own starts (moving from 5 shaky innings to consistently 6-7), Hinch has opted for 6 starting pitchers for the time being.
Reasons this makes sense: With 6 consecutive quality starts, Hinch doesn’t want to mess with a good thing. Strength in the starting rotation is what the Astros need right now, in order to keep the opponent scoring low and keep the Astros in the game when they don’t come out swinging bats. There still isn’t any consistency in the at bats, and until that levels out there will be some heavy reliance on the starting rotation to keep the games within reach. So, if the starting rotation keeps coming out with quality starts, then it makes sense to keep the current rotation intact.
If the designation is between Fiers and Devenski, then it’s a close race. Fiers has the veteran experience to work through tough innings and games. Fiers is coming into his 5th year in the MLB, and his career ERA (3.70) makes him a reliable starter. Devenski, while coming in hot to the MLB and putting in 3 quality starts, only has 3 starts. The fact that they’ve been good starts for a newcomer is why the team is moving forward with 6 starting pitchers. Down the line, I see this as Devenski’s spot to lose, and Fiers’ spot to fight for, if he maintains this consistency.
Reasons why this doesn’t make sense: although the starting rotation seems to be getting it together and settling in, there have been some awful starts. Every starter has been pulled from a game prematurely, leaving the bullpen to extend past a normal 2-3 innings. In fact, the starting rotation average innings played is less than 6, and you need 6-7 innings, average, to keep your bullpen fresh and competitive. There’s also the issues with Ken Giles, who has had a disastrous start with the Astros, and Josh Fields, who has been pretty subpar in relief over the past few weeks.
Giles is still a big question mark, but the current trend seems to be throwing him out to set up when the pressure’s not quite on. In Mondays series opener against the Cleveland Indians, Giles put in a solid inning in the 8th with the Astros leading by 5. Instead of optioning him down for a few weeks, this may be the path Hinch takes to bring Giles back. If this is, indeed, the path, it weakens the bullpen. It’s also quite possible that Feliz will be optioned back down when McCullers is placed on the 25 man, which is a shame because Feliz has turned out some pretty outstanding innings in the last few games.
We’ll see that on Friday, though, so I wouldn’t expect the 6 man rotation to be a long-standing deal.
Overall, the 6 man rotation moving forward is a good idea, and speaks pretty loudly for Hinch’s confidence in Devenski. This is his position to lose, and I feel this kid is just beginning to show us what he’s got. The jury’s out on Fiers, who managed his best game against the Cleveland opener Monday night, with the Indians’ AB making him look like a Cy Young candidate. If Fiers has indeed settled in, then the competition is going to be stiff for Devenski, but that’s not a bad predicament for the Astros. If he’s got it, he’ll show it, and the team will be better for it.