A breakdown of the Houston Astros’ pitching staff as we head into the 2020 season

FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2019, file photo, Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of Game 6 of the baseball World Series in Houston. Only 60 games into last season for the Houston Astros last summer, Justin Verlander won nine games and struck out 103 batters and went on to win his second AL Cy Young Award. (AP Photo/Mike Ehrmann, Pool, File) (Mike Ehrmann)

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros have had top pitching staffs in the team’s 3-year playoff run, with plenty of depth in the minor league system. Some depth may be there in 2020, but at the major league level, the Astros are the thinnest they have been in years. The Astros lost Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole to the rival New York Yankees, but welcome back Lance McCullers, Jr. from Tommy John Surgery.

RELATED: What to expect from Lance McCullers post-Tommy John surgery

Here’s a look at the Astros 2020 starting rotation.

The Ace

Justin Verlander

Fangraphs Projection: 3.32 ERA/3.43 FIP in 68 innings over 11 starts

The reigning Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer is coming off two minor injuries. Verlander’s time off during the coronavirus-related delay has helped him get healthy and ready to make the team’s Opening Day start Friday.

Fangraphs projects Verlander to drop off to something close to his 2016 numbers pre-joining the Astros (3.04 ERA/3.48 FIP).

In 2018 and 2019, Verlander pitched to a 2.52 and 2.58 ERA while setting a career-high for K/9 in 2018 (12.2) and nearly reaching that number in 2019 (12.1).

Watching him in Summer Camp, Verlander looks fully healthy and his fastball is scary. He should once against contend for the AL Cy Young and is one of the top pitchers in baseball, even at age 37.

The Other Ace

Zack Greinke

Fangraphs Projection: 4.05 ERA/4.16 FIP in 74 innings over 12 starts

The $200-million dollar man left Arizona for a better shot at a World Series and came within one game. Greinke was Houston’s *third* best pitcher in 2019 - think about how deep that rotation was - and now enters 2020 as the team’s #2. Greinke won the AL Cy Young in 2009 and should have won the NL Cy Young in 2015.

Greinke is projected to have a bit of a down season, mostly due to facing more hitters after leaving the NL. Greinke pitched to a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts for the Astros, but during his career, his ERA is 72 points higher while playing in the American League. Bottom line, Greinke is one of the top #2 starters in all of baseball.

The #3 coming back from injury

Lance McCullers, Jr.

Fangraphs Projection: 3.85 ERA/3.84 FIP in 56 innings over 10 starts

Lance McCullers, Jr. is 20 months past his Nov. 2018 Tommy John surgery and has looked healthy in both spring training and summer camp. Despite never playing a full season, the talent was always there and always helpful to the Astros. This is a perfect situation for McCullers, in that he won’t be asked to pitch all that much in the season coming off his surgery.

Fangraphs likes McCullers to look similar to what he was before his injury. If he does that, the Astros have one of the best #3 pitchers in baseball.

The #4 is where it gets dicey

Josh James

Fangraphs Projection: 4.03 ERA/4.09 FIP in 52 innings over 14 appearances including 8 starts

Josh James is set to start the fourth game of the season for the Astros, so for right now we can label him the #4 starter. That job was likely going to go to Jose Urquidy, but the Mexican pitcher is on the injured list with an unspecified “condition.” The Astros have not divulged any more information on Urquidy.

That leaves Josh James in a role he hasn’t embraced full-time since 2018 when he had 21 successful minor league starts. James pitched out of the bullpen in 2019 due to the team’s depth. That depth is gone and the Astros will rely on the hard-throwing righty.

Fangraphs likes James to be a solid contributor, and those numbers would be strong for a #4 or #5 starter. James would be perfect as the #5 if the Astros can get Jose Urquidy back.

The guys battling for #5

Here’s a list of potential #5 starters for the Astros:

  • Jose Urquidy
  • Austin Pruitt
  • Brad Peacock
  • Rogelio Armenteros

Here’s a list of pitchers on the injured list for the Astros:

(It’s those same guys)

The Astros are left with three options for the last starting slot:

  • RHP Cy Sneed
  • LHP Framber Valdez
  • RHP Cristian Javier
  • RHP Forrest Whitley

All three have starting experience in the minor leagues with some limited experience in the majors, but have all struggled at the major league level.

Framber Valdez is the team’s only left-handed starting option and will get the first crack at the No. 5 starting role for the Astros. Valdez has made 13 major league starts to limited success. Valdez’s strikeout numbers don’t pop off the page (8.5 K/9) and he has a scary walk rate (5.7 BB/9) at the major league level. What makes the Astros hopeful is what they saw in AAA in 2019, where Valdez struck out 69 batters in just 44.1 innings and pitched to a 3.25 ERA in the famously hitter-friendly PCL.

Sneed has been relatively reliable but has never stood out at either the major league or the upper minor league level.

Javier has impressed in Astros intrasquad scrimmages and made the team’s 30-man roster for his first major league action. The Dominican fireballer has had extreme success in the minor leagues, pitching to a 2.22 ERA in 92 appearances across all levels. Javier only has two starts in AAA, but had a 1.64 ERA in those two starts. Javier pitched to a 2.07 ERA in 17 appearances (11 starts) in AA, so the upper-minors success is real.

Whitley is the Astros’ top pitching prospect and lost weight after struggling through a disastrous 2019. Whitley didn’t make the Astros 30-man roster but could be a possibility down the road if the team ends up needing more pitching depth.

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