Astros set rotation, tab Figueroa over Lyles

Astros set rotation, tab Figueroa over Lyles

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The tap on the shoulder and the nod to come and pay a visit to the manager's office came for Nelson Figueroa like it had so many times before at this time of year. Instead of being told to pack his bags and head to the Minor Leagues, the veteran was informed he had made the Astros' starting rotation.

The Astros set their pitching rotation Monday morning, with the 36-year-old Figueroa -- the oldest player on the team -- securing the final spot behind right-hander Brett Myers, left-handers J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez, and right-hander Bud Norris.

"It's the first time I think I've been called in the office for a good thing," Figueroa said. "It was nice to get that reassurance to be the fifth starter, and I'm looking forward to it. I was excited about the opportunity coming into camp, and I had a good camp. I had that one bad inning and a half or two innings against Philadelphia, but you take that out and I felt I was really consistent and continued to get better as we've gone on."

Jordan Lyles, the club's top prospect who opened eyes by posting a 1.98 ERA in five games this spring, was reassigned to Minor League camp. The Astros ideally wanted Lyles to start the year in the Minors and get more seasoning, but were impressed with how well he pitched and competed for a spot.

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"It's always tough when a guy does so well," manager Brad Mills said. "You want those guys to make it a tough decision. We tell them that in the first meeting we have. We tell them we hope it's hard and we hope it's tough, and he made it real tough. That's good."

The Astros trimmed their roster by seven Monday, paring it to 42 players one week before they break camp and leave Florida. They also optioned pitcher Sergio Escalona to the Minor Leagues and reassigned pitchers Patrick Urckfitz, Fernando Rodriguez and Casey Fien, and outfielders Drew Locke and T.J. Steele.

"I knew it was coming, sort of," said Lyles, who will open the season in the rotation at Triple-A Oklahoma City. "I'll just go down there to camp for a little bit, get ready for the season, have a couple of good months and see what happens."

The decision to start Lyles in the Minors could benefit the Astros financially down the road. Lyles has yet to accrue any Major League service time and could remain under the control of the club for an extra year if he doesn't make his Major League debut until later in the season, postponing the start of his arbitration clock.

When the Astros open the season with a three-game series at the Phillies on April 1, two of their three starters will be former Phillies. One of those two, Myers, will start Opening Day against Roy Halladay, and be followed by Rodriguez, who will face Cliff Lee on April 2. The other, Happ, will square off against his old team and former Astros ace Roy Oswalt in the series finale April 3.

Norris will pitch the first game in Cincinnati on April 5, and Figueroa will make his first start April 6 against the Reds. This marks the first time in his 15-year professional career that Figueroa will begin a season on the Major League roster. He went 5-3 with a 3.22 ERA for the Astros last year after being claimed off waivers in July.

"It's unbelievable to think about it now," he said. "I've never broken camp with a team and been told, 'Hey, you're in the rotation.' I've always been the guy who was the 26th man and having the meeting the day right before the season starts. You're in a suit and about to go to the city where you're going to play, and you're told you have to head down to Triple-A and be the first guy called up. I'm excited, and I think they saw what I brought to the table as far as consistency and being a competitor."

Mills said Figueroa's experience, his success last year and his good spring camp made the difference.

"He's brings a lot to the table," he said. "He's able to throw strikes, fields his positions and holds his runners. He does things to give us a chance to win games."

Lyles, a non-roster invitee, came to camp competing with Figueroa, newcomer Ryan Rowland-Smith and Rule 5 picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton for the fifth spot. Rowland-Smith was told Sunday he was out of the running for the job, the day Lyles threw 3 2/3 dazzling innings against the Pirates.

Mills said Aneury Rodriguez and Pendleton are now in the mix for bullpen spots. They must stay on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to their former clubs, unless the Astros make a trade to keep them in the organization.

Lyles was named the Astros' Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year after going a combined 7-12 with a 3.57 ERA in a season split between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock. He got six starts at the end of the year in Round Rock and was 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA in his Triple-A debut.

"It will be good to get back there and to kind of get back to where I was at the end of the year," Lyles said. "I didn't really have the best starts last year, so it will be good to get back there and show them what I can do at the Triple-A level."

Figueroa expects big things from Lyles and hopes to see him in the Major Leagues this year.

"You have to take your hat off to Lyles and what a great camp he had," he said. "He continued to open eyes, continued to show why he's a valuable prospect at 20 years old. He's got the world on a pedestal right now, and that's good.

"I really enjoyed being around him because he was a kid who came in here old-fashioned style -- eyes wide open and mouth closed and continued to learn and work and showed why he is the top pitching prospect. He will have the opportunity at some point this year to help us out."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.