The Houston Astros already have 2 starting pitchers hitting free agency and learned Tuesday they will be without Lance McCullers for the 2019 season.
The Houston Astros were already facing big questions about their starting rotation after back-to-back 100-win seasons and those questions got larger Tuesday with the news that right-hander Lance McCullers will miss the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
McCullers was limited to working in relief after injuring his forearm in August while swinging a bat and admitted during the playoffs that he was pitching through “some stuff,” per CBS Sports.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today confirmed the news on McCullers.
McCullers made 22 starts and three relief appearances for the Astros in 2018, posting a 3.86 ERA and 1.169 WHIP with 142 strikeouts in 128.1 innings. In the postseason, McCullers allowed two runs, one earned, on four hits with two walks and four strikeouts in five innings over five appearances.
Houston’s rotation was dominant in 2018, with the lowest ERA and best strikeout rate among starting staffs and was facing the prospect of big changes this offseason before the McCullers injury.
Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Kuechel is a free agent and will almost certainly decline the one-year, $17.9 qualifying offer the Astros extended. Right-hander Charlie Morton is also a free agent, with the Astros not bothering to offer a QO to the soon-to-be 35-year-old.
All is not lost for Houston, which lost to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS this year after winning the franchise’s first World Series in 2017. They will still have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to anchor the starting staff.
Right-hander Collin McHugh was a starter for his first four seasons with the Astros before taking on a middle relief role last season after missing much of the 2017 season with an elbow problem.
Josh James, a 25-year-old right-hander who got a September callup after a solid season at Triple-A Fresno, striking out 19 in 15.1 innings over three late-season starts, with a 1.109 WHIP and 2.35 ERA as a starter.
Veteran right-hander Brad Peacock is another former starter who worked as a setup man in 2018 and could be stretched back into a rotational role.
Most clubs don’t have three internal options to fill three potential holes in the starting rotation, which is a testament to the rebuilding work the franchise did earlier this decade before emerging as a playoff team in 2015 and reaching the postseason three of the last four seasons.
But where Houston could suffer in this scenario is replacing those arms in the bullpen and also stripping the organization of its depth at the top of the system.
There are free agency options out there and the Seattle Mariners are rumored to be considering moving ace Felix Hernandez, but Houston is already at $77.4 million in salaries for next season, according to Spotrac, and had the ninth-highest payroll in baseball in 2018 at $163.5 million.
The Astros have long operated as a “small-market” franchise (despite being the seventh-largest TV market in the country, according to Sports Media Match, so the organization may be reluctant to tie itself to big-money deals.