How Houston Astros’ young rotation can keep them in the AL pennant race

Houston Astros
Apr 3, 2021; Oakland, California, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole and George Springer are gone, and Justin Verlander is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Even with those factors working against them, the Houston Astros took the Tampa Bay Rays to seven games in the American League Championship Series last season and are off to a 6-3 start to the 2021 MLB season. How is this possible? They have a budding, young starting rotation.

Houston’s prolific infield (Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel) is a primary catalyst for their steady play. That said, their offense has to be accompanied by a sturdy rotation to contend for the AL. They’re surrounded by a unit that’s precisely that and has the potential to be great.

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Houston’s young pitching leading the way

Zack Greinke has quickly become the old reliable of this rotation, and rightfully so. By his side is a grouping of compelling young arms in Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and, when healthy, Framber Valdez.

McCullers looks to be fully recovered from his 2018 Tommy John surgery, performing like the vibrant right-hander pre-surgery. Across his last 13 regular season starts,, McCullers owns a 3.60 ERA, a 3.74 FIP and 69 strikeouts.

Javier has picked up where he left off last season, getting out of trouble and keeping the Astros in games. The 24-year-old gets through damage by trusting his fastball and has been an integral part of manager Dusty Baker’s rotation. Last season he posted a 3.48 ERA and an 0.99 WHIP across 12 appearances, 10 of which were starts.

When Urquidy takes the hill, there’s a chance to witness some quality pitching.. He has a deceiving delivery that induces weak contact via his off-speed offerings. Last season Urquidy posted a 2.73 ERA across five regular-season starts. It’s a matter of him staying healthy. When healthy, Urquidy is a stud.

Valdez was arguably Houston’s best starting pitcher last season. The southpaw pitched deep into games, logged strikeouts at a plausible rate and was superb in the playoffs; Valdez, who posted a 1.88 ERA and held opponents to a .175 batting average across four playoff appearances, is currently recovering from a finger injury. Meanwhile, Luis Garcia pitched well out of the bullpen last season and is currently in the Astros starting rotation given Valdez’s absence.

Astros building a new core rotation

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This pitching staff has even more room to improve with experience. There will also be opportunities for these promising arms to become front-line starters in the future. Justin Verlander will be 39 when he returns next season from TJS, making a return unlikely. Zack Greinke could be a viable candidate for a new deal, serving as a mentor for his younger teammates.

The Astros have made it clear that they want to keep their positional core together. They’ve given out $20-plus million salaries to Altuve and Bregman over the last three years. They retained Michael Brantley this past offseason on a two-year, $32 million deal and top outfield prospect Kyle Tucker is becoming a star.

In the short term, the Astros remain a contender in the AL. They have the offensive firepower to be a well-oiled machine and their rotation makes for a considerable unit. As for the AL West, the Astros have already beaten the Oakland Athletics four times and there is no overwhelming threat in the division. There’s no reason why they can’t win the AL West and could retain that title for years to come.

Young developments in the starting rotation ease the financial complications for the Houston Astros past this season

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Starting pitching comes at a premium in MLB. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Trevor Bauer signed contracts that include an average annual salary of at least $33 million apiece.

McCullers recently signed an extension to remain in Houston through 2026. Meanwhile, Javier, Urquidy and Valdez are under team control through 2025. Houston also made a savvy move by signing Jake Odorizzi to a two-year deal

It wasn’t too long ago that things looked murky for the Astros. Now, thanks to the rise of their young arms, they can compete on a yearly basis. Best of all, with the money coming off the books, there’s a chance this team could land even more talent in the future.

A crucial aspect to long-term success could be locked down for the foreseeable future.