Four thoughts on Houston’s pitching staff after José Urquidy and Cristian Javier’s elbow surgeries

HOUSTON — A disastrous dose of finality arrived for the Houston Astros on Wednesday when the club announced both Cristian Javier and José Urquidy would undergo season-ending elbow surgeries, ending a weeklong saga shrouded in secrecy and scant on specifics.

General manager Dana Brown did not specify the type of operation each pitcher will have, but acknowledged Tommy John surgery “is certainly a possibility.”

A league source told The Athletic on Tuesday that Javier will undergo Tommy John surgery on Thursday. Another source said a second Tommy John surgery loomed as a distinct possibility for Urquidy, who was scheduled to undergo his operation on Wednesday.

The extent of either man’s surgery won’t be known until it is finished, but Houston is bracing to be without both pitchers until at least next July. The news prolongs a preponderance of pitching injuries that stretches back two seasons and prompts legitimate questions about either the team’s pitching program or its return-to-play procedures.

Houston has now lost four starting pitchers to major elbow surgeries in the past 13 months: Javier, Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. Javier, Urquidy and McCullers all attempted some form of a comeback before eventually requiring surgery.

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Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. had surgery last June to repair a torn right flexor tendon and remove a bone spur from his right forearm. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

To term it just an Astros problem is preposterous. Pitchers are breaking down across baseball. But the volume of injuries in such close succession stokes concern. On Wednesday, Brown defended Houston’s pitching philosophies and the work of its athletic training staff, most of which has been intact since 2022.

“Guys get hurt. You lose your guys in the rotation. I think our guys have done a heck of a job continuing to pound out pitching,” Brown said. “Our guys do a good job of that. I don’t think it’s anything that we’re doing. I just think it’s young kids that are throwing hard at an earlier age. At some point, things happen. You get hurt. It’s part of the game and goes with the territory.”

As the Astros begin their journey through that familiar territory, here are four thoughts on where Houston’s pitching staff goes from here.

The Astros must avoid a repeat of last season

Both Brown and manager Joe Espada spent most of Wednesday morning celebrating the work of Houston’s rotation, perhaps if only to project optimism on an otherwise dreary day. And, to be fair, Astros starters entered Wednesday with a 3.60 ERA across its past 23 games. Only eight rotations had a lower one.

Whether the success is sustainable is a serious question. The team is operating with five healthy starters on its 40-man roster who have substantial major-league experience: Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Hunter Brown, Spencer Arrighetti and Ronel Blanco.

Neither Garcia nor McCullers is expected to return until after the All-Star break, meaning these are the five men Houston must lean on for at least another two months.

Presuming all five can remain healthy is dangerous. Valdez already needed a stint on the injured list this season with what the team described as “left elbow soreness.” Arrighetti took a 103.8 mph comebacker off his left calf on Tuesday that limited him to just three innings. He is expected to make his next start on time, but the sequence demonstrates just how fast nonexistent depth can further diminish.

Neither Arrighetti nor Blanco has thrown more than 125 innings in any professional season, either. Houston confronted a similar situation last season, when rookies Hunter Brown and J.P. France blew past their previous career-high workloads out of necessity to aid a depleted rotation.

Both pitchers later acknowledged that fatigue impacted them and precipitated second-half spirals. Brown had a 6.57 ERA after the All-Star break. France posted a 5.84 mark in August and September. Preventing Blanco and Arrighetti from experiencing a similar fate feels imperative.

“Our job is just to make sure we monitor these guys closely,” Espada said. “We have some guys in the (bullpen) that can give us some middle relief that have done an incredible job. We just have to be smart and balance their health with winning because for us to win, we need healthy players. We just have to make smart decisions.”

Houston’s ‘return-to-play procedure’ back under scrutiny

In mid-April, Javier spent 18 days on the injured list with what the Astros described as “neck discomfort.” He returned on May 11, made three starts with diminished fastball velocity and landed back on the injured list with the “right forearm discomfort” that forced this surgery.

On Wednesday, Brown insisted the two instances were separate injuries, but the franchise’s lengthy history of misleading or incomplete injury explanations has removed some benefit of the doubt.

“When we signed him long-term, he was fine, so we knew that something must be going on, so we got him checked out. I think they’re separate issues, but ultimately, we’re glad we found out what was wrong,” Brown said.

Asked later whether he felt Urquidy was rushed back from his forearm strain, Brown said he did not before describing the toll seven consecutive trips to the ALCS — 97 extra games, by Brown’s calculations — have taken on Houston’s entire pitching staff.

“It always goes by how the player feels,” Brown said. “If the player feels good and his velocity is back and he’s throwing strikes, we go with it. You can only go by what the players tell you.”

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The Astros’ J.P. France may have been rushed back from a spring training shoulder injury, GM Dana Brown said last month. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

On May 26, however, Brown told the team’s pregame radio show France may have been rushed back from a spring training shoulder injury. France made five major-league starts before being optioned to Triple-A Sugar Land, where he is back on the injured list with a shoulder issue.

“When he got hurt in spring training and he felt the discomfort, we were really pressing to get him back and maybe we may have rushed him a little bit,” Brown told the team’s pregame show. “Especially with Verlander being out at the same time, we were trying to really plug holes in this rotation. He felt pretty good and so we pressed him a little bit and he tried to pitch through it. I think this time we’re probably going to be more patient.”

Two years ago, after acknowledging missteps in Jake Meyers’ rehab from a shoulder injury, former general manager James Click promised a comprehensive review of the Astros’ “return-to-play procedure.” Owner Jim Crane fired Click before it could be completed. Now, it’s worth wondering if it should be revisited.

Urquidy’s Astros career could be over

In an absolute best-case scenario, Urquidy won’t return to a major-league mound until July 2025, meaning Houston could face a fascinating decision this winter of whether to tender him a contract in his final season before free agency.

Urquidy is making $3.75 million this season. Salaries are allowed to be decreased during the arbitration process, but only by a maximum of 20 percent. But precedent exists here for a salary staying the same. After McCullers missed the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, he and the Astros agreed to a $4.1 million salary for the 2020 season — identical to his 2019 salary.

Presuming health and Dana Brown’s insistence that his team will not be sellers at the trade deadline, Houston’s 2025 rotation is guaranteed to include McCullers, Valdez, Garcia, Hunter Brown, Blanco and Arrighetti. If Verlander throws 140 innings this season, he will also return atop the rotation.

Javier, who signed a five-year, $64 million extension last spring, now looms as a late addition to that group. Tendering Urquidy and allowing him to rehab with the team’s training staff would be a show of good faith for a pitcher who has three World Series wins in his Astros career and is a beloved figure in the clubhouse.

The trade deadline focus is clear

Dana Brown has insisted the team will buy at the July 30 trade deadline. Presuming he is a man of his word, the second-year general manager must reinforce the Astros’ ravaged rotation if Houston has any hope of reaching the postseason.

Listening to the list of depth options Brown named on Wednesday only reinforced it. He never mentioned Blair Henley — the sixth starter on Houston’s 40-man roster — nor did he bring up Eric Lauer, the left-hander with 112 major-league starts in Triple A on a minor-league deal.

Lauer and Henley would likely be the first calls if Houston needs another starter in the immediate future, but Brown also bragged about both AJ Blubaugh and Jake Bloss. Bloss has made just six starts above High A. Blubaugh has made just 10 appearances and tossed 45 innings at Triple A.

(Top photo of Cristian Javier: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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