Lance McCullers Jr.'s setback intensifies Astros' need for rotation help

HOUSTON — Starting pitching always appeared the Houston Astros’ most apparent need at the trade deadline, even while team officials likened Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. to in-season acquisitions. Both are attempting comebacks from reconstructive elbow surgery, creating obvious concerns about their immediate impact.

Tuesday demonstrated the folly in presuming either pitcher is an answer to Houston’s most glaring problem. The team has “pulled back” on McCullers’ rehab progression with what manager Joe Espada described as “soreness in his arm,” intensifying Houston’s need for rotation help at the July 30 trade deadline.

McCullers was not spotted at Minute Maid Park before Tuesday’s game against the Miami Marlins. Last week, Espada said McCullers had stepped away from throwing while dealing with a family matter.

“He’s just not feeling well after his bullpens and his throwing programs,” Espada said on Tuesday. “He’s going to be no-throw for a few days until we sit back down and re-evaluate how we’re going to move forward.”

McCullers had progressed to throwing full bullpen sessions but had yet to face hitters. On multiple occasions, McCullers said his rehab schedule was five weeks behind Garcia’s. Garcia made his second minor-league rehab appearance on Thursday: a 31-pitch start for Double-A Corpus Christi.

Two weeks ago, general manager Dana Brown maintained getting Garcia back would be “like a trade” in August, but it’s clear he must do more to augment a rotation fraught with injury.

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Luis Garcia last pitched for the Astros on May 1, 2023. (Erik Williams / USA Today)

The Astros are already operating with just four healthy starters on their 40-man roster. Two of them, Ronel Blanco and Spencer Arrighetti, have never thrown more than 125 innings in a professional season. Arrighetti has a 5.96 ERA after 74 major-league innings.

Houston’s fifth starter, Jake Bloss, left his major-league debut last month with a shoulder injury. Though Bloss is on track to return on Thursday, counting on a player with nine appearances above A-ball for crucial innings amid a playoff chase is, at best, dangerous.

Ace Justin Verlander is still not throwing off a mound while nursing a vague neck injury. Verlander is beginning to throw with more intensity and more frequently, but on Tuesday he could offer neither a timetable for his return nor a specific diagnosis of his injury.

Verlander directed specific questions about his condition to the team’s medical staff, whom the club refuses to make available for interviews. Asked on Tuesday what Verlander’s diagnosis is, Espada replied “neck discomfort.”

“It’s kind of like spring training, where I talked about this balancing act of wanting to build up but not re-injure anything, which is what I’m most cautious about,” Verlander said. “I wish I could give you a timeframe, but that’s just not the case. It’s more of, ‘OK, go day to day, week to week, how do you feel?’ So far, it’s been good.”

Verlander must throw 83 more innings to trigger his $35 million vesting player option for the 2025 season — a benchmark that grows more improbable with each passing day. Cristian Javier, J.P. France and José Urquidy will miss most of next season, which might make acquiring a starter with multiple years of club control more logical for Brown. Urquidy and Javier could both be factors in the second half of next season, but they’d face the same questions currently surrounding Garcia and McCullers.

Garcia could need at least three more minor-league rehab starts before rejoining Houston’s major-league rotation, perhaps not before August. If McCullers was indeed five weeks behind Garcia, he already seemed destined to return in September.

Tuesday’s news invites wonder whether that is even feasible. Espada did not estimate when McCullers may resume throwing, but did intimate further medical examinations could be forthcoming. McCullers underwent flexor tendon surgery last June, the latest in a lengthy list of injuries for Houston’s fiery, homegrown right-hander.

McCullers pitched through a torn ulnar collateral ligament during the 2018 season and underwent Tommy John surgery when it concluded. He has thrown just 63 innings, including 15 1/3 during the 2022 postseason, during the life of the five-year, $85 million contract extension he signed before the 2021 season that took effect in 2022.

McCullers has thrown just 265 regular-season innings since the 2018 season in which he pitched 128 1/3 innings, but the mere thought of his presence in the middle of Houston’s rotation offered some solace for this injury-ravaged club.

He has a 3.16 ERA, 134 ERA+ and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings across those 265 innings, accentuating a point many frustrated fans forget: When McCullers is healthy, he’s a premier performer. His big-game experience could’ve been a boon for a rotation without much of it.

Expecting either McCullers or Garcia to give deep, dominant outings this season is somewhat short-sighted. If they do return, the team will exercise caution when deploying them. Whether they’ll be at peak effectiveness after such long major-league layoffs is a legitimate question, too.

A team trying to claw its way back into playoff contention can’t afford to wait for the answer.

(Photo of Lance McCullers Jr. from 2023: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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