For Velasquez, McCullers, the question isn’t ability but durability

Alan TruexHOUSTON — When the Astros dipped into their deeply stocked farm system to trade five pitching prospects to Philadelphia for the next Mariano Rivera, their fans, for the most part, approved.  At first glance Ken Giles was the missing link to the World Series.

But on second glance, and third and fourth, he looked like a 25-year old who knows how to throw but not how to pitch.  At least not for a contender.  He lost his closer’s job before the season opened.   He’s one of the reasons the Astros finished their first home stand in last place.

Meanwhile, Vince Velasquez, who was in that Christmas package delivered to Philadelphia, has evoked historical references with his early-season splendor.  The 23-year-old Californian won his first two starts by striking out 25 in 15 innings, allowing six hits, three walks and zero runs.

He became the youngest major leaguer to strike out 16 in one game since Mark Prior in 2003.

Besides Velasquez, the only active MLB pitcher to combine 16 whiffs with a no-walk complete-game shutout is Max Scherzer.

Only seven pitchers 23 or under have ever accomplished that feat.

Before this goes too far, perspective has its place.  Velasquez was gunning down the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. 

But in his previous start he had fired six shutout innings, not against Triple-A+ but the New York Mets, who five months ago were in the World Series while the Astros were home after losing a playoff round to the eventual champion, Kansas City.

Houston’s Moneyball-ing general manager, Jeff Luhnow, was wishing he had — aside from a corner infielder who could hit .230 — a closing reliever that batsmen would fear.  Someone who threw harder than Luke Gregerson’s 88 mph.

So Luhnow, who had been hoarding minor-league talent for years, was willing to part with four talented young starting pitchers to land the closer of his dreams.

Playing two seasons for the Phillies, Giles was radar-clocked at a consistent 99 mph, sometimes 103.  He was 9-4 for a last-place team, with ERA’s under 1.90.  He had an otherworldly 151 strikeouts in 115 innings.  Luhnow, being an analytics maven, was almost delirious over the swinging strikes, the WHIP and WAR. 

But throughout the spring and so far in the real season, Giles too often has served up his smoky fastball in the center of the plate.  And his fiery 87 mph slider gets mashed when it hangs like a grapefruit.  Giles allowed three home runs for 2014-2015 combined.  He gave up that many in his first four appearances of this season.

Since then he’s been steadier, and Gregerson all the while has been an emphatic closer, his slider biting the ankles like a starving rat.  

Giles, notwithstanding his current ERA being over 7, is a critical component of a staff that doesn’t have a dominant starter after the magnificent Dallas Keuchel.   It’s a matter of some urgency that the laser-throwing but mysteriously bum-shouldered Lance McCullers, 22, makes his season debut.  He postponed Saturday’s rehab start in Corpus Christi because of what manager A.J. Hinch called “lingering issues.”

Especially with McCullers in doubt, Velasquez is just what the Astros needed.  They knew he was good, worthy of at least the back end of their rotation, which he briefly held down last summer.  One Astros scout told me then: “Velasquez has a Roy Oswalt fastball, 95-97 on his four-seam, with a late hop.  If he gets command of his curveball, he could be untouchable.”

So why did the Astros give up such high-voltage electricity?   Because Phillies GM Matt Klentak would not let go of the best arm on his team unless he got the two best arms from the Houston farm.  He had to have both Velasquez and Mark Appel, the first overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft.  In fact, the Phils appraised Appel, who has yet to appear in The Show, as a more valuable asset than Velasquez, who’s a year younger.

Appel was the top of the barrel, but Luhnow gave up even more: Thomas Eshelman, 21, who was a second-round pick, and Brett Oberholtzer, who at 26 has 42 big-league starts and was in Philly’s rotation before Velasquez beat him out.

And for the benefit of trivia buffs, if nobody else, a couple of Class A throw-ins were swapped in that megadeal, both named Arauz.

It’s not that Klentak, at 35 the youngest general manager in MLB, knew Velasquez was about to blossom.  In spring training it was 50-50 whether he’d be the No. 5 starter or a setup reliever like Giles is now.    

Velasquez publicly stated his preference.  He told Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly: “I’m not really favoring that relieving half, to be honest with you.”

It wasn’t a question of starter’s ability but of durability.  Tommy John surgery in 2010, groin injury in 2014, back trouble last year.  Velasquez didn’t reach 90 innings in either 2014 or ‘15 and has never exceeded 125 in a season.   That would seem to spell relief.

Perhaps Luhnow considered him the Sam Bradford of baseball pitchers.  Talent that gives the scouts goose bumps, but injuries that remove him from active duty a majority of the time.

So the Phillies are taking a cautious approach with their right-handed prodigy.  They will limit him to 150 innings.  Unless, of course, they find themselves in that most unexpected situation, a pennant race in September.

Which is what the Astros will be in if – and perhaps only if — Giles turns out to be Giles and McCullers turns out to be close to what Velasquez seems to be.

Luhnow did, by the way, find a first baseman who can reach first base: rookie Tyler White, .420 OBP after the first two weeks.   White hit .362 last year in the aforementioned PCL (Fresno).  So maybe he’s not a fluke, even though he was drafted on the 33rd round in 2013, when he was burdened by 25 more pounds than the 225 he now carries on his 5-11 frame.

It’s way too early to be definitive about anything in this baseball season.  But for now it looks like Luhnow created a trade imbalance when he cleaned out his stockpile of arms.  If Giles and McCullers let him down, he may have nowhere left to go to upgrade what would be a less than elite pitching staff.


Alan Truex for 13 years covered the Astros for the Houston Chronicle.


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