The Houston Astros' eight-man rotation experiment has ended at the Triple-A level.
The Astros will continue to rotate eight starting pitchers at Double-A and lower levels. But because of injuries and pitchers shuttling between Houston and Triple-A Oklahoma City, the RedHawks have returned to a traditional five-man rotation.
Quinton McCracken, the Astros director of player development, said circumstances required scrapping the original plan even though the RedHawks still have seven pitchers the organization feel could be starters.
The “piggyback” concept features four groups of two pitchers that form a four-day rotation. The starter is limited to five innings or 75 pitches. The “piggyback” starter is limited to 60 pitches. They reverse roles the next time through the rotation.
“We had a stint in the majors where three of our starters didn't get out of the second inning,” McCracken said. “That kind of took its toll on the rotation in OKC with all the shuffling.”
Dallas Keuchel made four relief appearances with the Astros. Brett Oberholtzer logged a one-day, two-inning stint in the majors. Paul Clemens and Jose Cisnero currently are in Houston.
Injuries also were a factor.
After making one start with the RedHawks, John Ely, last year's Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in the Dodgers system, was diagnosed with a chronic elbow injury. Ely underwent surgery and will not pitch the remainder of the season.
Rudy Owens, who made four appearances with the RedHawks, recently underwent foot surgery for a stress fracture. Owens will be sidelined until August.
The original plan was the RedHawks eventually would revert to a five-man rotation at some point in May.
Because the change happened earlier than projected, it shouldn't be much of an adjustment. Early in the season, pitchers are getting stretched out, building their pitch count. The Astros limit minor league pitchers to 100 pitches a game through June.
“They're just now on the cusp of getting up to 90,” said RedHawks pitching coach Steve Webber. “We went to it because we felt we had an abundance of good starters in the organization at every level.”
At the start of the season the Astros required all of their minor league teams to use an eight-man rotation. It's not a new concept but had never been tried before in Triple-A.
Now the RedHawks are back in their normal routine. Getting back to traditional roles should benefit pitchers like Jordan Lyles and Jarred Cosart, projected to be part of Houston's future rotation.
Lyles, 22, already has made 40 major league starts the past two seasons. He threw five shutout innings in his last OKC start. He has a 5.32 ERA but most of the damage was limited to two appearances. Lyles has a 2.45 ERA in his other four appearances.
“Up there (in the majors) it's going to be a five-man,” Lyles said. “Anywhere you go it's going to be a five-man. That's what you've done your whole career. To get back into that routine is a pretty good deal.”
Cosart, 22, is viewed as one of the Astros' top pitching prospects. He might spend much of the season in Oklahoma City but is showing why the Astros' No. 4 overall prospect armed with a 96 mph fastball is on the fast track to the majors.
After Tuesday night's 4-2 win over Nashville at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Cosart is 3-0 with a 2.63 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 271/3 innings.
Lyles, Cosart and the other three members of the RedHawks rotation (Keuchel, Oberholtzer and Ross Seaton) no longer have to be concerned with coming out of the bullpen every other appearance.
“It just worked its way back to the way it normally is,” said catcher Jason Jaramillo. “The bullpen hasn't really gotten away from what they traditionally do so this could be beneficial for our entire staff.”