Posted on November 7, 2018, by Bryan Zarpentine

Houston Astros Lance McCullers

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The calendar still says it’s 2018, but the Houston Astros have already suffered their first loss of the 2019 season. The club announced Tuesday that starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. will sit out all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The loss of McCullers is an early blow to Houston’s chances of making a World Series run in 2019.

Elbow trouble is nothing new to McCullers. He missed time in both 2016 and this past season while nursing a balky elbow. He also had multiple DL stints in 2017 due to a bad back. After going 10-6 in 22 starts this past season, McCullers went to the DL in early August because of elbow discomfort. When he returned in late September, he did so as a member of Houston’s bullpen. He made three appearances during the regular season and five more during the playoffs as a reliever and continued to be effective.

However, it was clear that McCullers wasn’t 100% healthy during the latter part of the season or postseason. He eluded to pitching through some discomfort but didn’t go into specifics about it. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to learn that he would need Tommy John surgery, especially considering his injury history.

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Of course, when healthy, McCullers has been an asset in Houston’s rotation. In his 80 big league starts, McCullers is 29-22 with a 3.67 ERA. He was also a key contributor as both a starter and reliever when the Astros won the World Series in 2017. McCullers was also projected to be an important part of the team’s rotation heading into 2019.

If healthy, McCullers would have been penciled in as Houston’s no. 3 starter in 2019 behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. There’s a good chance the Astros will lose both Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton via free agency this winter. That would have required McCullers filling a more prominent role in 2019. Of course, that will no longer be the case.

The good news for the Astros is that they have plenty of options for filling the vacant spots in their rotation. Due to an overcrowded rotation, both Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh pitched out of the bullpen in 2018. Both could easily make the transition back to the starting rotation in 2019. The Astros also have a number of pitching prospects who could hold down a rotation spot at some point in 2019. Forrest Whitley, Josh James, and Cionel Perez, and Framber Valdez are among the more noteworthy pitchers in Houston’s farm system.

Despite some depth, the loss of McCullers makes it more likely that the Astros will explore their options on the free-agent market. Peacock and McHugh are considered back-end starters at best. The Astros aren’t sure what they’ll get from their younger pitchers. Without McCullers in the third spot, there could be a steep drop-off between Verland and Cole and the rest of the rotation.

The silver lining, of course, is that the Astros know in advance that they won’t have McCullers in 2019. They have all winter to plan for not having him part of the team next season. However, that doesn’t change the fact that losing McCullers is a significant blow to the Astros and will undoubtedly have an impact on the moves they make this offseason.

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