Astros must fill hole in rotation after Cole's departure

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — As the Houston Astros put together their rotation for this season, they're faced with a Texas-sized hole after Gerrit Cole left as a free agent to sign with the New York Yankees.

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New manager Dusty Baker is looking for somebody to step up and help make up for the loss. But more than likely no one player will be able to replace Cole, and Baker will need multiple pitchers or "somebodies" to take a step forward.

“It's not easy to replace his quality of work, or his innings pitched,” Baker said. “So, we're looking for somebody to replace him or somebodies as a group.”

Justin Verlander and Cole provided a powerful 1-2 atop Houston’s rotation last season to help the Astros win the American League pennant. Cole led the AL with a career-best 2.50 ERA and finished second in the majors to Verlander with 20 wins, also a career-best.

Cole was the runner up to Verlander in Cy Young Award voting before leaving Houston to sign a $324 million deal with the Yankees.

Zack Greinke, acquired at last year’s trade deadline, will slide into the second spot in the rotation. The 36-year-old is working out on his own and hasn’t reported to camp but is expected join the team on Saturday.

Behind Verlander and Greinke things are far less certain with six players vying for the remaining three spots in the rotation. Lance McCullers should lead the way to earn one of the spots in his return after missing last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. An All-Star in 2017, the 26-year-old went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 25 games in 2018.

Verlander thinks McCullers' return will go a long way in helping to make up for the loss of Cole.

“Anytime you lose a pitcher who was one of the best in baseball it's not easy, but I think we have the talent,” Verlander said. “We're getting Lance back and everybody kind of forgot Lance was an All-Star pitcher and one of the best in baseball before he before he (was) injured.”

Also competing for a spot in the rotation is veteran Brad Peacock, who has spent time as both a starter and a reliever in his seven seasons in Houston. José Urquidy also returns for the Astros after going 2-1 with a 3.95 ERA in nine games as a rookie last season.

Another returning player who could compete to start is hard-throwing right-hander Josh James. He was 5-1 with a 4.70 ERA in 49 games with just one start last year in his first full season in the majors. He was a candidate to be in the rotation last spring but was slowed by an injury and relegated to the bullpen.

He’s open to whatever role the team decides is best for him but would prefer to be in the rotation after starting for most of his minor league career. Baker has talked at length with James about his goal of being a starter and what he’ll have to do to crack the rotation this season.

“I've talked to him extensively about mind control and controlling your emotions but also being competitive at the same time,” Baker said. “Because you just can't get too high or too low as a starter because you'll burn out as far as energy is concerned. So, I know he wants it and we're going to give them opportunity to get it.”

Right-hander Austin Pruitt, who was traded from Tampa Bay in January, and top prospect Forrest Whitley are also in the mix to be a part of the rotation.

Verlander and Baker are also quick to point out that Cole wasn't the elite pitcher he is now when he joined the Astros before the 2018 season. And they hope someone might make an unexpected jump like Cole did in his time with the Astros to bolster the rotation this season.

“You can't replace Gerrit but you also, you can't forecast anything," Verlander said. “You don't know what some of these young guys can turn into or can be. I mean nobody knew that Gerrit was going to be as good as he was when he got here. So we'll see what happens."

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