Astros Notes: McCullers, Bloss, Verlander

Lance McCullers Jr.’s return from last year’s flexor surgery hit a snag. Manager Joe Espada told reporters this afternoon the team was pausing the righty’s throwing program after he experienced arm soreness coming out of his recent bullpen sessions (link via Chandler Rome of the Athletic). The team didn’t provide much detail, as Espada noted only that McCullers won’t throw for a few days “until we sit back down and reevaluate how we’re going to move forward.”

It’s possible this is merely a minor setback and McCullers will be able to resume throwing in the coming days. Still, any mention of arm soreness is going to raise alarm with the pitcher’s injury history. McCullers lost the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery the previous November. He returned and stayed healthy for most of the 2020-21 campaigns, but he battled forearm discomfort during the ’21 postseason.

McCullers was out into August ’22. He returned to make 11 starts down the stretch and into the playoffs before suffering another arm injury while ramping up during the 2022-23 offseason. That eventually necessitated surgery. McCullers hasn’t pitched in a game since starting Game 3 of the 2022 World Series.

That kind of extended layoff makes it difficult for the Astros to bank too heavily on McCullers contributing down the stretch. Yet the team has pointed to returns from Luis Garcia and McCullers as possible stabilizers for a rotation that is barely hanging on. Garcia is on a rehab stint as he works back from last May’s Tommy John procedure. He could be back around the start of August. Even if all goes well with Garcia, the rotation depth remains perhaps the team’s biggest question.

Houston is operating with four starting pitchers at the moment. Framber ValdezHunter BrownRonel Blanco and Spencer Arrighetti are the only healthy starters on the 40-man roster. They should get a fifth arm back this week. Espada suggested that Jake Bloss is likely to return from the 15-day injured list to start on Thursday against the Marlins (X link via Matt Kawahara of the Houston Chronicle). Bloss suffered a shoulder injury during his MLB debut on June 21 and has been shelved for around three weeks.

Getting Bloss back nominally completes the rotation, but the club can’t feel great about relying on a pair of rookies for the final two spots. Arrighetti has had an inconsistent debut campaign and is sitting on a 5.96 ERA across 16 starts. The Astros just drafted Bloss in the third round last summer. He has made two starts above Double-A. Blanco, who has had a fantastic year after securing the fifth starter job in Spring Training, had never topped 88 innings in any minor league or MLB season before this one. He’s up to 103 frames with a 2.53 ERA after firing seven innings of two-run ball tonight.

Blanco’s emergence and Hunter Brown’s midseason turnaround have helped key the Astros’ recent push back into contention for the AL West. They’ll need more sources of reliable innings down the stretch, which will likely come through some combination of injury returnees and trade. Beyond Garcia and McCullers, Justin Verlander has been out since mid-June with neck discomfort. The future Hall of Famer suggested on Tuesday that he’s still unsure precisely when he’ll be ready for game action (link via Kawahara). Unsurprisingly, the New York Post’s Jon Heyman wrote recently that Houston is looking to add at least one starting pitcher from outside the organization before the July 30 deadline.

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Title: Astros Notes: McCullers, Bloss, Verlander
Author: Anthony Franco

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