As Framber Valdez heads to the injured list, where will the Astros turn for innings?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One workhorse is working his way back as another begins his absence, a plight the Houston Astros could not have predicted but now must confront. Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander are polar opposites as pitchers but share one similarity disappearing in the modern game.

Verlander is a veteran of 12 200-inning seasons. Valdez authored his first in 2022 and fell just two frames short of a second last year. Even on days their effectiveness wanes, both discover ways to work deep into games, a godsend for an Astros pitching staff already wondering where its innings will come from.

Tuesday only intensified that question. Valdez went on the injured list and will miss at least his next two starts with what manager Joe Espada described as “left elbow inflammation,” removing perhaps the only reliable length left in Houston’s injury-ravaged rotation.

Espada did not want to speculate on a timetable for Valdez’s absence. Other specifics about the injury were scant — Espada said he “didn’t get any news” about Valdez’s ulnar collateral ligament — but the skipper did acknowledge Valdez won’t throw until the inflammation subsides.

Pitchers with elbow problems typically aren’t hurried back into big-league rotations. Espada and general manager Dana Brown have tried to offer optimism, but expecting Valdez to only require the minimum 15-day absence feels farfetched.

The longer Valdez is absent from the Astros’ rotation, the more Houston’s curious choices this past winter must be questioned. Verlander needs one more minor-league rehab start this weekend before he is activated, but even his return won’t entirely abate the innings deficit.

Front offices don’t operate as if their top two starters will sustain injuries before May. But innings deficiencies were apparent before Verlander’s shoulder started to hurt in February or Valdez felt something in his elbow on Sunday. That the team responded by bringing in one major-league pitcher now looks worse.

Houston’s starters had a 4.74 ERA after the All-Star break last season. Valdez and Verlander logged 155 of those 389 1/3 innings — and Verlander didn’t even make his Astros debut until Aug. 5. Each of Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown and J.P. France threw more innings than any season in their professional career.

Houston had to build in extra rest days for Javier throughout the season to keep him fresh. Brown and France fatigued throughout the second half, too. Brown boasted a 6.57 ERA after the All-Star break while France had a 4.37 mark.

José Urquidy threw just 63 innings and managed a 5.29 ERA in a season marred by shoulder problems —  another chapter in an already extensive injury history. It should come as little surprise then, that Urquidy is back on the injured list with a forearm strain and still isn’t throwing off a mound.

Putting aside Urquidy’s injury history, the Astros still entered spring training with six healthy starters but were already aware neither Lance McCullers Jr. nor Luis Garcia would return from their respective elbow surgeries until after the All-Star break. Faith in Ronel Blanco’s future as a starter seems founded, but he is in his second year as a full-time starter and hasn’t thrown more than 125 1/3 innings in any professional season. Top prospect Spencer Arrighetti, who will make his major-league debut on Wednesday, has never thrown more than 124 innings.


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That the Astros even pursued Blake Snell during spring training signaled there were at least some worries about their rotation. Not signing or trading for some form of insurance earlier is curious, especially when it became clear owner Jim Crane would cross the competitive balance tax threshold.

Crane signaled his intentions in January by authorizing a five-year $95 million contract for closer Josh Hader, the largest free-agent deal of his ownership tenure.

The Astros lost 207 1/3 innings from their 2023 bullpen and responded by signing one reliever to a major-league contract — a man who, in the past, has been adamant about recording only three outs. Hader hasn’t made such demands in Houston, according to Espada, but investing that much money in a one-inning specialist ignored a more glaring problem.

If the team had $95 million to spend, spreading it among a group of veteran pitchers seemed more prudent, supplying established depth that clearly doesn’t exist. The fault isn’t in signing Hader, it is in not reinforcing the bullpen and staff around him. Doing both is possible, even if the Astros made it seem not so.

Houston brought in some relievers with major-league service time on minor-league deals, but it misses the established middle relief that Héctor Neris, Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman provided. Each of them has at least six years of major-league service time.

Houston now has four members of its bullpen with fewer than three years of service.

Envisioning steps forward for some of the unproven pitchers isn’t farfetched. Blanco is already displaying some. Seth Martinez hasn’t allowed a run in his first seven innings of work, either, but may be subject to some roster crunches as one of the two bullpen mainstays with minor-league options remaining.

On Monday night, Martinez collected 11 outs on 32 pitches, buoying a bullpen already sabotaged by some suspect baseball operations decisions.

To make room for spot starter Blair Henley on Monday, the team opted to designate reliever Miguel Díaz for assignment instead of placing Valdez on the injured list. Deciding to deploy a short-handed bullpen behind a man making his first major-league start is curious enough. But doing it during the fourth day in a stretch of 13 straight games is even more so.

Henley recorded one out, forcing Martinez to throw more than 30 pitches for just the seventh time in his 72-game major-league career. Brandon Bielak threw 23 more — three days removed from throwing 63. Both men tamed the Texas Rangers, part of a prolific performance to preserve a 10-5 win in which four relievers threw 8 2/3 scoreless innings.

Díaz may have lessened the workload for one of them, but Dana Brown opted to discard him. A day later, Houston did what it should have on Monday — placed Valdez on the injured list and restocked its fatigued bullpen, a carousel act that may become unsustainable.

(Photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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