WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — With virtually every position already a lock for the Houston Astros at the beginning of spring training, the toughest decision manager A.J. Hinch might have to make this spring is which of his talented pitchers won’t make the rotation.
On a championship team with Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, newcomer Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers, Hinch will likely have to send one or more of his other starters into the bullpen to open the season.
“Poor me to have too many starters that need to be in the rotation,” Hinch joked.
Hinch’s “problem” is one that many managers would love to have. The addition of Verlander late last season combined with the offseason trade for Cole, made Houston’s already solid rotation arguably one of baseball’s best.
Keuchel, who won the Cy Young in 2015, bounced back from a tough 2016 by going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA last season. The 30-year-old lefty started five games and collected two wins in the playoffs to help Houston to its first World Series title.
Verlander was spectacular after being traded from Detroit on Aug. 31, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts in five regular-season starts. He continued his solid pitching in the postseason, propelling the Astros into the World Series by going 2-0 with an 0.56 ERA to down the Yankees in the ALCS.
The 24-year-old McCullers is looking to take the next step this season after going 7-4 with a 4.25 ERA in 22 starts last season. He started four games and pitched in relief in one game in the playoffs, including getting the start in Game 7 of the World Series.
Cole is the only new face in Houston’s rotation after joining the team in a January trade from Pittsburgh. He was 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA while starting a career-high 33 games last season.
That collection of pitchers leaves the Astros with Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh competing for the last spot in the rotation. Morton will likely get the job, but Hinch didn’t say for sure that it was his.
Morton started and won Game 7 of the ALCS with five shutout innings, then won Game 7 of the World Series by pitching the last four innings against the Dodgers.
“If we’re healthy I think deciding is pretty easy,” Hinch said. “I think communicating is going to be the hard part, because I think there are a lot of guys that deserve to be in the rotation — guys that have basically started their whole careers.”
The easiest player to move into the bullpen will be Peacock after he has bounced between starting and the bullpen for most of his career. He started last season as a reliever, but moved into the rotation when injuries decimated Houston’s rotation in late May. The 30-year-old had his most consistent season last year, posting a 13-2 record and 3.00 ERA in 34 games to revive his fledgling career.
Another reason why he’s an obvious choice to move to the bullpen on this team overflowing with starters is because of his easygoing attitude. He says he’ll be happy to fill whatever role Hinch has for him and never complained last season when he was bounced back and forth between roles.
Convincing Morton or McHugh that moving to the bullpen is a good thing will be a bit more difficult. McHugh hasn’t pitched in relief since doing it in two games for the Mets in 2013, and Morton’s only regular-season appearance out of the bullpen came as a rookie in 2008.
But Hinch isn’t worried about his players adjusting to whatever he decides to do.
“If you’re committed to doing things at an elite level — and we’re chasing championships here — there’s going to be some tough decisions for me,” he said. “There’s going to have to be some reality conversations with players and everybody will be on board because of what this team potential is.”
Hinch was also quick to note that the Astros will almost certainly have to use more than five starters through the course of the season, so there will be opportunities for players who don’t make it out of spring.
“You can never have too much pitching,” he said. “There’s usually something that happens that you need an extra starter here or there.”
The Astros had 11 players start at least one game last season and while it certainly won’t be a regular occurrence, Hinch showed during the postseason that he wasn’t afraid to bring any starter out of the bullpen. That was evident in Game 4 of the ALDS against Boston when he went to 13-year veteran Verlander in the fifth inning to make his first career relief appearance.
“I think if the postseason last year proved anything, it’s that pitchers pitch,” Hinch said. “You’ve got to give them a little bit of time to warm up. You might be careful with them pitching back to back early in the season. But when guys get out there on the mound (they) compete.”