Lance McCullers Jr. makes his first career start against the rival Texas Rangers tonight. He’s coming off a seven-inning, one-run, five-hit performance against the Los Angeles Angels, bringing his innings total to 76.1 innings pitched at the Major League level. Add that to the 29 innings he pitched in the Minor Leagues this season and McCullers has pitched a total of 105.1 innings this season.
The 41st overall pick in the 2012 draft, McCullers has never thrown more than the 104.2 innings pro innings during the 2013 season. The Astros have said they would like to keep McCullers’ innings down this season, but it’s unclear how their plans have changed now that the Astros are in first place in the AL West.
The Astros spent the last week of July adding two pieces to the rotation in Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers. Kazmir slides right behind Dallas Keuchel in the rotation as a deadly 1-2 punch to start any series. Fiers, though not a sexy name, still provides stability at the back end of the rotation.
Both moves were necessary and I’m sure GM Jeff Luhnow made both moves so that it could give him options with McCullers Jr. and the rest of the rotation.
As it stands today, the Astros have Keuchel and Kazmir at the top with McCullers Jr. as the #3. Following those three you have Collin McHugh, Fiers, and Scott Feldman. So should the Astros stick with a six-man rotation or should McCullers be sent to the bullpen?
The decision is a tough one for the guys in charge of the Astros. McCullers has been nothing short of stellar with a 2.48 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 13 starts. However, how many more innings do the Astros want to give their 21-year old starter?
If I had to guess, the Astros likely don’t want McCullers going any more than 150-170 innings this season, if even that many. Assuming McCullers goes six innings a start, that would give him another seven or eight more starts to reach the 150-inning mark. If he has just one start a week as part of a six-man rotation for the remainder of the season, that means he’d be shut down just as the season is ending.
The Astros looked into adding a back-end bullpen piece at the deadline but came up short. They were seeking a fireballer that would give other teams a different look than the rest of the bullpen. If the Astros choose to send McCullers to the pen, he could certainly be that fireballer the Astros sought.
All Astros fans want to see McCullers as a starter in the playoffs. Coming into a series with Keuchel, Kazmir, and McCullers as your 1-2-3 would give you the utmost confidence in a series. But the Astros won’t have McCullers available if they stick to an innings-limit and want him to start once a week for the remainder of the season.
My advice at this point would be to send McCullers to the bullpen for the next month or so. Use him in the 7th or 8th inning in August to keep him in high-leverage situations. Once September comes and the rosters expand, I’d continue keeping McCullers in the pen until the last few weeks of the season. Give him three starts in September to get back into the groove so that he can be ready for the playoffs.
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It’s not the optimal way of handling the rotation because you want to trot out your best option every single time out. Having Feldman start over McCullers in August could lose you a game or two but I believe it’s worth it for the long run.
Some people don’t believe in an innings-limit but it’s clear that Astros value it. They are one of the only organizations to utilize a tandem-pitching system in the Minor Leagues, the idea being to limit the innings of their young starters.
With an unexpected playoff run now in the cards, the Astros have a decision to make with McCullers. Start him now but potentially lose him for the playoffs or put him in the bullpen and bring him back for the playoffs?
What say you?
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