MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Keuchel raising more questions than answers

Keuchel raising more questions than answers

CHICAGO -- Dallas Keuchel may have had a point. The Astros could have used reinforcements for their rotation when they were widely available.

But here's a question for Houston's ace: Does he have enough life on his 90-mph fastball to bust hitters inside and set up his offspeed pitches?

That looms equally relevant now that we're into August, and it's becoming less likely that a name-brand starting pitcher is going to ride in to restore confidence in the Astros' rotation. That job continues to fall mostly to Keuchel, and so far, not so good.

"It's just the way it's going,'' Keuchel said after Houston lost, 8-5, to the White Sox on Tuesday night. "I was really, really good before I went down and really, really bad in the three starts post-DL. We'll get it right and get back to it, but it's very frustrating.''

There doesn't appear to be any help in sight.

While Justin Verlander has cleared waivers and can be traded, he's a long shot to wind up in Houston, or anywhere other than Detroit.

Verlander's solid start

Because of all the complications with a Verlander trade -- his contract, his 10-and-5 rights to veto trades and the high asking price in terms of talent -- Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says he'd be shocked if Verlander is dealt. That sounds right.

Name another potential front-of-the-rotation starter that might be traded.

Bonus points if you can. I'm stumped.

The Giants would probably move Jeff Samardzija's contract; the White Sox are open for business regarding the likes of Miguel Gonzalez and Derek Holland, but the handful of impact starters that were movable flew off the board in July.

Samardzija's quality outing

Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow let the Trade Deadline pass without any major upgrades, instead betting that the Astros can find internal answers to deal with the rotation issues that threaten what's otherwise been a magical season for A.J. Hinch's team.

Rather than meet the asking price for Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana or Verlander (who may have blocked a deal anyway), Houston added Francisco Liriano to the bullpen and doubled down on the rotation it already had, the one Keuchel leads.

Liriano on joining Astros

Keuchel said that disappointed would be an understatement after the top starters went elsewhere at about the same time that No. 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. experienced a setback in his recovery from a back injury. Luhnow could say the same thing about Keuchel's recent performance.

Keuchel got knocked around Guaranteed Rate Field by the White Sox for eight runs in four innings innings Tuesday, his third consecutive unimpressive start since spending time on the disabled list with a nerve issue in his neck.

If you're gonna take shots at your front office, you probably should do better than 14 runs on 21 hits in 12 innings. Those are Keuchel's totals since coming off the DL.

You almost wonder if Keuchel is again trying to pitch through an injury, as he did when his shoulder bothered him last season. But he said he feels good, and just hasn't yet been able to throw his fastball where he wants it on a consistent basis. Keuchel went 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his first 11 starts, looking very much like the guy who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2015. He and McCullers were as much a part of the Astros' 42-16 start as Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa, but that is starting to seem like a long time ago.

"I'm surprised any time he's not almost perfect,'' Hinch said. "He's been so dominant for so many starts. If he's not particularly strong, it's a little surprising. He had a real injury, took a lot of time off. He's trying to get his rhythm, his timing. He feels good. Just an adjustment getting back to his level."

Hinch says any animosity about the limited activity at the Trade Deadline was short-lived. The Astros are determined to keep adding to their AL-best record and to their lead in the AL West, which stands at 14 1/2 games over the Mariners.

"I think our guys handled it the best way you could,'' Hinch said. "They're all competitive, they all have opinions and they all have social media. All of that leads to people expressing their opinion. After that, it's been done. Not something routinely talked about in our clubhouse. We talk about getting healthy. We haven't had our full team for over a month now.''

Nine Astros are on the disabled list, although Springer (quad) is likely to be activated Wednesday. Correa is ahead of schedule in his return from a torn ligament in his left thumb, although he could still be out until early September.

The deep, versatile lineup is keeping the Astros churning along despite widespread pitching issues. The bullpen has the second-highest ERA in the Majors since the All-Star break, making it tougher to count on leads getting to closer Ken Giles.

Right-hander Collin McHugh, who will start against the White Sox on Wednesday, has been a bright spot. He experienced elbow problems in Spring Training and didn't make his first start until July 22. McHugh has worked six innings against the Rays and Tigers in his past two starts, allowing only one earned run in both starts.

McHugh's strong start

"He's fresh,'' Hinch said. "He feels like it's April, and most of us don't. It's good that we were able to [insert] him. I think he's gone under-appreciated, what he's done for our team over the past couple of years -- innings and quality. He pitched two games in the Division Series two years ago. He's a really good starting pitcher.''

Time is on the Astros' side. But October baseball favors the teams with the best rotations, and Houston needs pitchers to step up, starting with Keuchel.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.