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Matthew Leach

Amid progress, Astros compromised by rotation

Rebuilding club enjoying pleasant surprises, but starting five creates concern

Amid progress, Astros compromised by rotation play video for Amid progress, Astros compromised by rotation

NEW YORK -- Astros starter Philip Humber allowed four runs on nine hits over six innings on Tuesday night. That this counts as progress tells you a bit about the state of the Houston starting rotation.

In fairness to Humber, he probably pitched better than his line in a 7-4 loss at Yankee Stadium. He threw strikes, and three of those hits were of the infield variety. He didn't exactly catch a lot of breaks.

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Still, it's the rotation where things are going awry for the much-discussed Astros these days. Their offense hasn't been bad. Their bullpen, Tuesday notwithstanding, hasn't been great, but neither has it been disastrous. They could certainly catch the ball a little better, but the problem has been in the starting five.

Even games like Humber's on Tuesday would be better than a lot of what they've gotten lately. A Houston team that is seventh in the American League in runs scored is a distant last in starters' ERA, and perhaps just as important, in innings per start. They need to get deeper in games and be more effective.

"There's no moral victories," Humber said. "We're competitors like everyone else. We want to win every ballgame we go out there and play. It starts with starting pitching. Most of the time when we've gone out and pitched well, we're in it at the end. We've won some, we've lost some, but I think that's where it starts. If we, as starters, can be consistent, we're going to have a lot of chances to win ballgames."

It's worth remembering the Astros' plan. The goal remains to win in the long term, and if that has consequences in 2013, so be it. Houston assembled its rotation with this in mind.

It consists of a couple of guys, Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell, who are pretty solid big league starters and could be around for a few years if the front office so desires. Harrell is under team control for at least four years after this one, while Norris is controlled through 2015. Neither may be an ace, but they're both good enough to be members of a contender's rotation.

Then Houston added some risk-reward types, guys like Erik Bedard and Phil Humber. These are the kinds of players it's smart to take a chance on, in case you get a few good months and can flip them for young talent. Brad Peacock was recently regarded as a top prospect before a rough 2012, while Jarred Cosart is still highly rated and is pitching at Triple-A Oklahoma City. They could conceivably be parts of the rotation of the next good Astros team.

Beneath it all, they brought in some veterans to stash at Triple-A in case of emergency, while some youngsters in the lower levels come along. The plan made sense. Then injuries and ineffectiveness struck all over the place, and it started to look pretty ugly.

It's easy to be flippant and say it doesn't make much difference, given that the plan is all about the long term. But there is a season to play. There are players to be developed in the Major Leagues, and a full 162-game schedule. The Astros can't punt 2013 entirely, obviously. And while any losing is tough, the kind of losing where you're out of the game before you know what hit you can especially grind on a club.

Which means that one way or another, they need to get better starting pitching. Maybe that comes from Humber and Bedard turning it around. Maybe it comes from someone like Paul Clemens or Jose Cisnero stepping in. Maybe it comes from Cosart.

But it needs to get here.

"The game of baseball starts and ends on the mound," said manager Bo Porter. "You look at the successful teams, they have good pitching. Then, from pitching, you go to the defense. The hitting part of it is probably the third aspect. ... To have stabilizing starts by your starters, it basically sets the tone for the whole ballclub."

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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