KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros think so highly of right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. that they put him on an individualized throwing program in an effort ease him into this season. Right shoulder soreness he sustained late in spring camp turned out not be anything serious, though it did validate the team's plan to handle McCullers with care.
McCullers, coming off a breakthrough rookie season in Houston, was lined up to be the Astros' No. 3 starter prior to the injury, and he should rejoin the rotation at some point in April if his recovery goes smoothly. His electric stuff and tenacious competitiveness could translate into dominance and provide a terrific trio of starters with defending American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and 19-game winner Collin McHugh.
"He's got a ton of potential," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of McCullers. "He's already good, and he's got room to get better. He fits in well on a good staff, on a team that expects to do well. He gives the opponent something to have to worry about. There aren't a lot of guys that race to the batter's box to face him. He's got electrifying stuff if he can harness it and find some consistency, pitch a little bit deeper into games. But he's every bit the type of pitcher that, when I sent him out to the mound, the entire team thinks we're going to win."
McCullers, 22, was called up from Double-A Corpus Christi last June and had one of the best rookie seasons by a pitcher in club history, finishing among the top 10 Astros rookies all time in strikeouts per nine innings (9.24), opponents' batting average (.226), ERA (3.22) and strikeouts (129). He went 6-7 in 22 starts during the regular season, including an 11-strikeout complete game on June 3 against the White Sox.
"My biggest goal is just to be able to handle that workload," McCullers said earlier in camp. "That's the big topic, the big thing A.J. and I keep talking about, how we're going to handle that. My biggest thing is just go out there every day and compete and make sure I'm doing what I need to stay healthy."
McCullers, son of the longtime Major League pitcher with the same name, said he wants to take a step forward this year. In an effort to attack right-handers more effectively, he's refined his sinker and slider, and he has been working on a changeup.
"I've studied this offseason to make myself better," McCullers said. "I've added some pitches that I think are going to make me a more effective pitcher and just overall [better] pitcher for the club."