A few years ago, the Cleveland baseball club put together one of the best all-time seasons by a pitching staff, accumulating 32 fWAR with a collective 3.30 ERA and a 3.33 FIP. A year later, the Houston Astros came dangerously close to matching that level of production. As a staff, they accumulated 30.6 fWAR with a collective 3.11 ERA and a 3.23 FIP in 2018. Led by a stellar rotation and a deep bullpen, the Astros leaned heavily on their pitching staff to repeat as AL West champions, but ultimately fell short of repeating as World Series champions.
The 2019 pitching staff will be hard pressed to match the lofty heights of their predecessors. Gone are Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers is sidelined until 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. In their place, the Astros plan to move Collin McHugh back to the rotation and signed Wade Miley to an affordable free agent contract. They also have a plethora of young pitching prospects waiting in the wings to make the jump to the majors. The bullpen remains largely intact, with controversial mid-season acquisition Roberto Osuna still installed as the closer. They may not be the best pitching staff in the American League anymore, but they’re still a formidable group.
RHP Justin Verlander
He’s “only” 36, but Justin Verlander is the type of durable ace we’ve scarcely seen since the peak of the steroid era. The future Hall of Famer hasn’t simply aged gracefully: since joining the Astros he’s had a resurgence. 2018 was quite possibly the best season of his career, as he relied more heavily on his overpowering fastball than he had in a decade. After reaching a nadir in 2014, averaging 93.3 mph on his four-seam, Verlander has climbed all the way back up to 95.4 mph since joining the Astros. A decline is always possible at this age, and injury remains a greater risk, but paired with the Astros’ analytical team, he’s seemingly uncovered a personal fountain of youth. Until proven otherwise, in his final year before free agency, Verlander is a Cy Young candidate yet again. ~JT
RHP Gerrit Cole
The moment the Astros traded for Gerrit Cole groans echoed across the AL. The über-talented righty didn’t disappoint, unlocking his best self and joining Verlander and Keuchel as Astros starters to reach 200 IP last year. He struck out a laughable 34.5% of the batters he faced while walking just 8.0%, transforming his four-seam and curveball into a devastating combo. Cole and Verlander share similar profiles, so it’s not shocking to see the two move closely together in usage, but that makes it no less devastating for the league. Cole is just 28, but he too is in his final year of contract. 2019 should be another impressive year for the top of Houston’s rotation, but the future is less clear. ~JT
RHP Collin McHugh
With a full rotation after the acquisition of Cole, Collin McHugh was moved to the bullpen last season. He thrived. He led their relief corps with 1.4 fWAR accumulated over 72 innings. As you’d expect, his fastball velocity played up in shorter stints and his high-spin curveball was as effective as ever. He also introduced a revamped slider, with a new grip he picked up from Brad Peacock. The new sweeping action on the pitch gave him a different look than the 12-6 movement of his curveball. With a third weapon in his arsenal, he boosted his strikeout rate over 33%. McHugh is headed back to the rotation in 2019. His fastball velocity will probably come back down to where it was back in 2017, but his slider gives him a higher strikeout rate ceiling. ~JM
RHP Josh James
More than 1,000 players were selected in the 2014 draft before the Astros picked Josh James in the 34th round. He was never on anyone’s prospect’s radar, quietly posting decent numbers as he worked his way through the Astros organization. This offseason was the first time he appeared on a prospect list of any kind after a breakout year across three levels. He posted the highest strikeout-rate and walk-rate differential of any minor league pitcher last year and ended the year with a brief call up in September. His breakout was fueled by a massive increase in velocity—likely the result of treatment for sleep apnea. He pairs that blazing fastball with a pair of above average secondary offering, a changeup and a slider. He’s dealing with a quad injury this spring, but he should slip into the middle of the rotation once he’s healthy. ~JM
LHP Wade Miley
Somehow, Wade Miley managed to resuscitate his career in Milwaukee last season. After a miserable two years in Seattle and Baltimore, Miley introduced a cutter into his arsenal and it paid dividends. His strikeout rate wasn’t the beneficiary however, as it dropped to the lowest it’s been since his rookie year. Instead, his new pitch helped him limit hard contact and increase his ground ball rate to a career high. Amazingly enough, he only allowed three home runs last year. But without a strong strikeout rate to back up his contact management, he’ll be hard pressed to replicate his success this year. The Astros saw enough promise in his new repertoire to sign him to ostensibly replace Dallas Keuchel in their rotation. But if he stumbles, there are plenty of pitching prospects waiting to take his place come May or June. ~JM
RHP Forrest Whitley
LHP Framber Valdez
RHP Brad Peacock
LHP Cionel Pérez
What do you get when the best pitching prospect in baseball, a minor league ace, a No. 3-4 starter for any other team, and another high-level prospect walk into a saloon? The Astros’ rotation depth! Mariners fans will get very familiar with Forrest Whitley soon enough, though a suspension for amphetamines last year likely delayed his big-league call-up until midseason. If you cloned Cole or Verlander and made them 21 again, but added an inclination towards analytics and Driveline, you’d have a good facsimile of Whitley. Framber Valdez made a start against the Mariners last year, stymieing the offense and inducing a flurry of groundballs. That’s Valdez’s game, but his command has been shaky. Brad Peacock would be a rotation piece for 27-28 other teams, but in Houston he’s been bumped to the bullpen for a year and a half. The 31-year-old has never thrown more than 135 innings in a season, but he’s good for spot starts at least. Cionel Pérez is “the other” top pitching prospect in Houston, as the nearly-23-year-old snuck into FanGraphs’ Top-100 prospects with the 100th ranking on the dot. His stuff leapt forward in 2018 but his minimal workload so far means he’ll be limited on innings.
Closer - RHP Roberto Osuna
2018 Stats: 38 IP, 2.37 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
2019 Projection (ZiPS): 54 ⅔ IP, 2.96 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 0.9 fWAR
On talent, Osuna is one of the league’s better bullpen arms. The 24-year-old was solid after the Astros traded for him at a discount from the Blue Jays while he was serving a 50-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. He utilizes four pitches - somewhat unique for a reliever - and will have little competition for the closer role.
RHP Ryan Pressly
2018 Stats: 71 IP, 2.54 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
2019 Projection: 67 IP, 3.09 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 0.9 fWAR
Like so many recent Astros acquisitions, Ryan Pressly has one standout skill: a ridiculously high spin rate on all of his pitches. Picked up from the Twins in July, Pressly started throwing his excellent curveball far more often with the Astros. That led to a big increase in his strikeout rate and ground ball rate. He also cut his walk rate all the way down to 3.6%. There’s probably a little small sample size noise in his numbers with the Astros, but the adjustments to his pitch mix have unlocked a much higher ceiling than before.
RHP Will Harris
2018 Stats: 56 ⅔ IP, 3.49 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
2019 Projection: 52 IP, 3.29 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 0.7 fWAR
Harris is a career reliever, never starting a game as a professional until a lone rehab stint in the minors in 2017. The 34-year-old is a two-pitch man, bringing a cutter and a curveball, but both have significant movement and continue to deliver.
RHP Héctor Rondón
RHP Chris Devenski
RHP Joe Smith
RHP Dean Deetz
LHP Reymin Guduan
Rondón was plucked off the trash heap after the Cubs released him and managed to find some work in the ninth inning with the Astros while Osuna served his suspension. After his breakout year in 2016, Devenski has taken two steps back since then. Maybe it’s related to overuse but he’s really struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark the last two years. Smith suffered a nasty ankle injury over the offseason and will likely be sidelined until mid-season. Deetz converted to a relief role full time last year and made his major league debut in September. He’s posted ridiculous strikeout rates in the minors but his lack of command has held him back. Guduan will likely serve as the lone left-handed reliever in the Astros bullpen this year.