added 4/23/2009 by Bob Hulsey
Yes, you read that right. The Houston brass will soon need to make some tough decisions on what to do with their pitching staff. Right now, two pitchers - Brandon Backe and Brian Moehler - are headed west to Round Rock for rehab assignments. Doug Brocail, the third righthander currently on the Disabled List, claims he won't need rehab and will be ready as early as Sunday. All three make more than the major league minimum and all three are out of options. So, once they become ready, they'll be expected to rejoin the parent club.
But then who would you send down? And why?
Felipe Paulino had an outstanding first start last Sunday in place of Moehler. What if he has another great start against the Brewers? Can the Astros afford to send down a starting pitcher after two excellent starts?
Jeff Fulchino was the other injury call-up. He's done well other than one mistake pitch to Manny Ramirez who is one of the best hitters in baseball. Is it fair to send him down with the work he has done, both in the regular season and during the spring?
Even if you send those two back to Round Rock, there's still the decision on Backe. Other than Wesley Wright, nobody else is eligible to be sent down from the current staff without having to clear waivers first.
Perhaps somebody else will go on the Disabled List before a decision needs to be made. Jose Valverde certainly could do that after getting banged up in his Monday appearance against the Dodgers with a bruised ankle, a strained calf and a sore heel. Yet, I doubt the Astros want to shelve their closer for 15 days unless absolutely necessary. Valverde certainly has demonstrated he can play thorugh pain. Chris Sampson, it's been reported, has a torn labrum in his hip but he is not expected to miss any time over it.
Brocail and Moehler have struggled so far this season but both were key performers in last year's surprise finish. Backe has flashed signs of being good since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery back in 2006 yet has not been able to stay healthy or consistent.
So, those are the choices: send somebody down who has pitched well enough to stay, expose a player to waivers who may be claimed or find some clever ways to DL some pitchers and forestall the decision until later. I suppose there's one other option - to trade a pitcher - but finding a trading partner in April isn't too likely.
Other than Moehler (0-2, 27.00 ERA through Wednesday), there's been little to grumble about concerning the starting pitching - the alleged weak spot on the team. Roy Oswalt (0-2, 4.68) had not been getting much run support until last night. Wandy Rodriguez (1-1, 1.89) has been his usual Jekyll-and-Hyde pitcher based on whether he's home or away. Mike Hampton (1-1, 3.12) and Russ Ortiz (1-0, 5.93) have given us what we would expect from the back end of the rotation.
The bullpen has been a different story as Brocail (1-0, 7.71), Wright (1-0, 8.71), Geoff Geary (0-2, 5.62) and Tim Byrdak (0-0, 3.38) have all been disappointing thus far. However, all were effective last year and it's too early to give up on any of them.
During the course of a season, most teams use between seven and nine starting pitchers. Some might find it easy to say "cut Backe loose" but if it were so easy, the Astros would not have tendered him in free agency when they let others like Ty Wigginton walk. At some point this year, the Astros will find it useful to have Backe around. That's particularly true if Hampton or Ortiz prove to be less durable than hoped for.
I personally find it excessive to carry 12 pitchers on the active roster due to the limits it puts on your bench and on late-game maneuverability. Yet the Astros may soon find themselves where they will have 15 pitchers and 12 spots won't be enough for them.
The likelihood is that the Astros will do their best to keep all their options open so the decision will be based more on who they can afford to send down rather than who deserves most to stay. However, if Paulino has another strong outing this week, I'd favor keeping him in Houston and letting someone else dangle on the waiver wire. We're going to need more starts like his effort against the Reds if we're going to climb back into the division race.