The Astros went into the offseason looking like they had their rotation for 2011 mostly in place. They have a solid front three with Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ. And that's assuming Myers' resurgent year in 2010 wasn't a fluke. The threesome of Myers, Rodriguez and Happ might not strike fear in the heart of the common reader, but it is worth pointing out that the Astros had as many quality starts as the Giants last year. It's safe to say, however, that Myers and Rodriguez won't be confused with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain any time soon. But the trio of Myers, Rodriguez and Happ was a combined 18-7 with a 2.87 ERA after the break last year. If they duplicate that production in 2011, the Astros will have a front three that's as good as any in the league.
But the question mark was with the fifth spot in the rotation. Although that spot is generally discarded as virtually irrelevant, Fernando Abad's winter has the Astros looking like they could have one of the deepest rotations in the National League.
The lefty made his major league debut last year, compiling a 2.84 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 19 innings. It's an extremely small sample size that provides very little insight into the kind of pitcher he could be, and he was originally expected to do little more than compete for a prominent bullpen role. His winter numbers, however, have given the Astros reason to re-evaluate. In 10 regular-season games (six starts) in the Dominican Winter League, Abad went 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA. He was also dominant in the playoffs, including one game in which he allowed no hits through six innings, retiring the first 16 batters he faced before an error broke up his perfect game.
Originally, the front-runners for the fifth spot in the Astros' rotation were Nelson Figueroa and Jordan Lyles. Figueroa put up surprisingly good numbers last year, but a 36-year-old journeyman who has started only 27 major league games since 2004 isn't quite ideal. And Lyles, the Astros' great prospect, is only 20 years old and needs some more work in the minors. Abad could provide the just-right-in-the-middle solution to those two extremes on the age spectrum, and actually could provide some talent to boot.
The tougher decision will be what to do with free-agent signee Ryan Rowland-Smith, who may end up with the job as fifth starter just so the Astros don't risk losing him. He's another lefty who is a couple of years older than Abad, but has done more to prove himself at the major league level. He took a big step backward in 2010, but he did enough in '08 and '09 that the Astros will want to give him a real look. Abad will certainly give the Astros something to think about, however, and when placed in a rotation with Myers, Rodriguez, Happ and Bud Norris, he could help the Astros have one of the most difficult and surprising rotations in the NL.
Austin Swafford runs the SweetSpot Astros blog at Austin's Astros 290 Blog.