Lance McCullers Jr. may need elbow surgery, and suddenly the Astros could be in the market for three starting pitchers

This past season the Houston Astros had the most dominant starting rotation in baseball. They had the lowest ERA (3.16) and highest strikeout rate (10.4 K/9) among starting staffs, and their 3.28 Fielding Independent Pitching metric was a league best as well. The traditional and sabermetric stats loved Houston’s starters.

Believe it or not, the Astros are now facing something of a rotation crisis this offseason. Crisis is probably too strong a word — they still have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, after all — but the Astros are suddenly facing some rotation questions. Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are free agents, and, on Monday, general manager Jeff Luhnow revealed Lance McCullers Jr. may need elbow surgery.

Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle has the details:

Luhnow said Monday the organization will know more “shortly” in regard to Lance McCullers Jr.’s health. The general manager was scant on details, revealing only that the 24-year-old has seen “some doctors” and some type of surgery exists as a possibility.

“If he has surgery, no. If he doesn’t, yes,” Luhnow said when asked directly if McCullers will pitch for the Astros in 2019. “Any time you’re talking about an elbow injury, (surgery) is one path to resolving it.”

Luhnow did not reveal specifics about the injury, but, in situations like this, it’s easy to assume the worst, with that being Tommy John surgery. The fact Luhnow acknowledged surgery would cause McCullers to miss 2019 indicates a serious injury. If it were surgery to remove bone spurs or something like that, McCullers would be able to return next year. That isn’t the case.

McCullers, who has a history of elbow and shoulder problems, strained a muscle in his forearm while swinging a bat in August. He returned in late September as a reliever and threw an additional five innings out of the bullpen in the postseason. McCullers admitted he was pitching through “some stuff” in the postseason. Now that the season is over, the Astros will get him checked out.

With Keuchel and Morton free agents, Houston’s rotation depth chart looks something like this at the moment:

The (extremely) hard-throwing James was one of the biggest breakout prospects in the minors this past season and he was impressive during his September call-up cameo. McHugh and Peacock are quality veterans who have started in the past, but worked out of the bullpen in 2018. Having two guys like that as fallback options is a nice luxury.

Luhnow told reporters, including Rome, his “goal is going to be looking at all the different alternatives” to address the rotation, meaning free agency and trades. For what it’s worth, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports the Astros have interest in free agent lefty CC Sabathia. Sabathia is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, but the veteran southpaw did throw 153 innings with a 3.65 ERA (120 ERA+) in 2018, and he’s indicated 2019 will be his final season. He can be had on a low-cost one-year contract.

One thing to keep in mind is the impending free agencies of Verlander and Cole (and McHugh). Both will become free agents next year, and while the Astros could certainly re-sign them, doing so is not a guarantee. In addition to a short-term depth guy like Sabathia, Houston could look to add a pitcher with long-term control this offseason as well, setting themselves up better for 2020 and beyond. Will that push them into the mix for Patrick Corbin, the best starter on the free agent market?

I suppose the silver lining here is the timing. Luhnow said the Astros will know “shortly” whether McCullers needs surgery, and the offseason is still young. No free agents have signed and no trades have gone down. They have have time to come up with a strategy to address the rotation and put it into motion. Things would’ve been much more difficult had McCullers suffered the injury in, say, spring training. The Astros have plenty of time to get their rotation in order.

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