The Houston Astros are off to a surprising start to the season and they finally have hope of reaching the playoffs after years in the cellar of their division. A large part of that has been the result of the development of their prospects. That development recently led to top shortstop, Carlos Correa, being promoted to Triple-A last week.
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Following Correa will be starter Lance McCullers who will start for the club today versus the Athletics. McCullers was drafted in the sandwich round of the 2012 MLB draft, the same draft during which they acquired Correa.
McCullers struggled out of the gate last season in High-A, posting a 5.47 ERA after a season where he had a 3.18 ERA in Class-A ball and rested nicely in the middle of Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list. His WHIP rose from 1.35 to 1.56, while his home runs yielded per nine innings nearly sextupled from .26 to 1.67.
Most notably, is he that he continued to struggle with his control, giving up 5.2 walks per nine and walked 12.8 percent of the batters he faced.
Yet despite the down year, his potential and pitching arsenal gave him the opportunity to rebound in a big way. With an overpowering fastball, plus breaking ball, and average, but improving changeup, he was promoted to the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.
His fastball can reach up to 97 mph with late life, but rests around the low to mid-90s. His curveball has a hard spin that makes it difficult for hitters to identify, which makes it a swing-and-miss pitch for hitters on both sides of the plate. His command of his fastball has been iffy throughout his minor league career, but his curveball has been consistent.
The changeup may be the determining factor in his career. If he can show consistent mechanics and control of it and vary the velocity, it has potential. He spent the majority of last season refining the pitch, and it came at the expense of his production, but McCullers himself admitted it was necessary if saying it was essentially if “I wanted to get to the big leagues as much as I do”.
After the promotion, everything seemed to click for him. His walk percentage decreased to 9.5 percent, while his strikeout percentage increased to a blistering 37.1 percent while posting a .62 ERA across 29 innings.
Even with his struggles, McCullers’s ability to dial up strikeouts is undeniable. After four straight years of striking out at least nine batters per nine innings, he raised his average to 13.34 this season, leading to 43 total strikeouts and stranding 94 percent of base-runners on base.
As a result of that strikeout potential, he should have a future as an above average reliever if he has control issues as a starter. Yet the future is now for McCullers as far as he is concerned as he’ll get his chance to contribute to a team that is competing for a playoff spot.
Only one day after being promoted to Triple-A Fresno, McCullers received notification that he would be heading to the big leagues as a replacement for the injured Brett Oberholtzer, who was placed on the disabled list with a blister on his index finger.
"“I’m proud of our scouts for identifying (McCullers),” Astros General Manager Luhnow said to the Houston Chronicle. “I’m proud of everybody in our player development department for working with him, but he deserves the credit. He’s the one who’s worked hard to get here. Having come from a baseball family, he knows what it’s like to be a big leaguer. He’s been getting better every year. He was one of the elite prospects in the state of Florida back when we drafted him. So we knew he had a chance to get here fairly quickly. This is quick.”"
For a player who is only 21 years old and has expectation higher than his father and former Major League reliever Lance McCullers Sr., such a quick promotion will tell the Astros a lot about their young starter.
“Certainly this is a young man whose dreams are going to come true Monday night, but it’s up to him starting Monday to assure himself a spot to stay here,” Luhnow said to the Chronicle.
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McCullers will need to prove that his six appearances this season wasn’t a fluke and that he’s composed enough to keep command of his pitches against Major League hitters.
He definitely wasn’t composed when he rushed to tell his parents about the good news. “I’m trying to call my dad, trying to call my dad,” McCullers said to the Chronicle. “Finally he answered. He called me back. I just said, ‘We did it.’ ‘Did what,’ he said. ‘I got called up.’ That was special for me. I’ve been around this game my whole life with my dad. When you’re a little kid you dream about being drafted, dream about being a big leaguer. You dream about being able to tell the people you care about the most that you got called up. It was just special.”
Currently, MLB.com’s tenth-ranked prospect in the Astros’ organization, McCullers’ dream has finally come true. Now it’s just about making it last. Time will tell if that happens, but with his electric stuff he’ll have an excellent chance.
With the Astros leading the American League West with a 23-13 record, any extra lift they receive from McCullers will be a bonus. Houston has been looking for some positive production out of a fifth starter and they’ll hope McCullers could be a potential solution. If his command continues to improve, he could eventually have a future as a mid-rotation starter.