Astros Spring Training: Scandal Aside, Pitching Staff Will Have To Adjust

Losing Gerrit Cole and catcher Robinson Chirinos matters

Brandon Scott
February 12, 2020 - 6:06 am

Fallout from the sign-stealing scandal will continue to be the central conversation as Astros pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach, Florida this week.

As exhausting as it may be for fans, it’s important to understand this is only the beginning. 

The stench from losing your World Series winning manager and general manager will follow throughout the 2020 season, and likely further. 

This will be exhausting.

It’s reasonable for fans to want media, especially local, to move past this and start focusing on games. 

Eventually, we will. Or at the very least, multitasking with layered Astros storylines will be part of the job. 

But the Astros put themselves in this situation.

Ten players remain from the 2017 World Series team.

Only Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman have spoken publicly, and their comments from Fanfest last month were widely criticized for lacking accountability.

That’s something Astros owner Jim Crane has since addressed

"The message is going to be very simple. We apologize for what happened to the fans and sponsors. We’re sorry," Crane said Jan. 21 on SportsRadio 610. "We’re going to make this right and we’re going to do the right thing.”

It’s still unclear whether the players will speak individually or as a group. 

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training Wednesday. Their first workout is Thursday.

Four pitchers remain from the 2017 team -- Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski. 

Each of them is part of a compelling on-field storyline as it relates to the Astros: Verlander coming off a Cy Young season at age 36; McCullers’ workload likely to be managed after Tommy John surgery; Peacock’s flexibility to move from the rotation to the bullpen; and Devenski as one of Houston’s more reliable relievers. 

All of that will be secondary to looming questions about their connections to this scandal.

How much did they know? Was there participation in so-called codebreaking? Why didn’t they stop it?

Astros fans are going to love the team in spite of this all, especially with them winning. 

The local media, by and large, prefers to cover a winner. 

This is not a hostile relationship. But the Astros should be held accountable and scrutinized. 

A fringe player is suing them because he thinks sign-stealing ruined his career.

The Wall Street Journal just uncovered the sign-stealing concept started in the front office and trickled its way down to the clubhouse.

Three MLB teams lost their managers. 

Players around the league, and opposing fanbases, have already sought to delegitimize the Astros’ 2017 World Series.

Hank Aaron said the Astros who cheated should be suspended permanently. 

RelatedAstros Owner Jim Has Unfinished Business

As far as narratives go, this is so much bigger than your normal spring training. 

All of that said, Astros pitching is probably the most compelling on-field storyline. 

So let’s talk about it.

Backend rotation

Replacing Gerrit Cole’s production is not a realistic expectation. 

Losing Cole in free agency is something the Astros had been prepared for, especially after trading for Zack Greinke during last season. 

Greinke will step up to form as a respectable 1-2 punch with Verlander at the top of the rotation.

There are high hopes for McCullers to bounce back from Tommy John surgery as a viable starter. 

Jose Urquidy proved himself last season and his development is worth watching.

That leaves the backend of the rotation with the most uncertainty. 

You’re not going to replace someone who last season went 20-5 with an AL-best 2.50 ERA, led Major League Baseball with 326 strikeouts and finished second in AL Cy Young voting only behind his teammate Verlander.

Cole was 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA in his last 22 regular season starts before going 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA in the playoffs.

“Every team I’ve been on, I’ve always looked for a surprise person to come through, a young player that gets to figure something out over the winter,” Baker said at his introductory press conference last week. “You don’t know why. I always leave a spot for a surprise. I really don’t know who that person may be, or persons may be. But I’ve got my eyes open to try to find somebody that all of a sudden got it together and hopefully he can be as good as Gerrit Cole was.”

The Astros get Greinke for a full season, McCullers in whatever limited capacity, and then there’s a mix of youngsters.

Forrest Whitley may be the most talked about Astros prospect before actually pitching in the majors. 

Maybe this is his breakout year.

Other prospects, Bryan Abreu and Cristian Javier, could also be in the mix. 

Those are the guys Dusty Baker is talking to.  

Bullpen intact 

With closer Roberto Osuna and setup man Ryan Pressly on the ready, the Astros should be able to get through most games with confidence in their bullpen. 

Devenksi, Joe Smith, Joe Biagini and Josh James return to the squad, though James’ inconsistency has been a concern. 

One of those aforementioned prospects could also factor in. 

It will be interesting to see who emerges within this group.

The Astros lost Will Harris to the Washington Nationals, who took the lead in Game 7 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park with a Howie Kendrick home run off Harris. 

Despite that being the lasting image of Harris, he had been one of Hinch’s go-to bullpen guys. 

Collin McCugh is also a free agent. 

So that’s two who pitched 60 innings or more for the Astros last season and no longer on the roster.

Smith missed the first half of last season with an injury, but the Astros brought him back on a two-year deal worth $8 million

This is still one of the best bullpens in the American League.

No more Chirinos

One of the storyline that shouldn’t fall by the wayside is losing Robinson Chirinos in free agency. Chirinos returned to the Texas Rangers, for whom he played before signing with the Astros last season, leaving Martin Maldonado as the likely starting catcher. 

The Astros signed 32-year-old Dustin Garneau in November, likely to compete for a backup role with Garrett Stubbs, 26. 

The relationship between Verlander and Chirinos was described in the Houston Chronicle last year as like “fire and ice.”

Chirinos was Verlander’s first personal catcher. Hinch told the Chronicle that the chemistry and trustworthiness between Verlander and Chirinos produced one of the more remarkable pitcher-catcher combos in baseball. 

“He’s going to be the calm one in the moment, maybe even the more reasonable one in the moment,” Hinch said. “That Midas touch that he has, to be the calmest heartbeat, is very valuable to me.”

How big is the dropoff from Chirinos to Maldonado, and from Maldonado to Garneau and Stubbs? 

That’s what we’re hoping to learn soon.

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