The top four spots in the rotation appear to be set with Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ, and general manager Jeff Luhnow created an all-out frenzy for the final spot by signing Hernandez and Zach Duke to Minor League deals and trading for Kyle Weiland.
For the next month-plus, Luhnow, manager Brad Mills and pitching coach Doug Brocail will watch countless bullpens and pore over hours of video in an effort to try to identify the right guy for what at this point appears to be one rotation spot.
"We're going to have some interesting choices to make, but that really was the strategy -- to make Brad's and Doug's lives miserable, to make them have to make some tough choices between good options," Luhnow said. "That was my job to make sure it happened."
As it stands, Duke, Hernandez, Weiland, Lyles, Henry Sosa and Lucas Harrell will be battling for a rotation spot. Lyles and Sosa both made their Major League debuts for the Astros last season and made a handful of starts, and Harrell was claimed off waivers last year from the White Sox. Duke is the only lefty of that bunch.
Brocail, who's in his first spring camp as pitching coach, gathered all the starting pitchers on Tuesday and told them the competition is going to bring out the best in them.
"I told them I want them rooting for each other, helping each other and at the end of the day, we're going to take the best five, and I hope that shows in their work habits," he said. "We know there are some young guys, some older guys, but Jeff hasn't limited us, and that's nice. We're going to go out and see what guys have."
The Astros ranked 14th in the 16-team National League last year with a 4.52 ERA as a starting staff. Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49 ERA) pitched well, but Myers (7-14, 4.46 ERA) had a down season, Norris (6-11, 3.77 ERA) struggled with control and didn't get good run support and Happ (6-15, 5.35 ERA) had a woeful first four months.
While the Astros are hopeful all four can pitch to their potential this year, they added more arms to the mix this winter in case someone gets injured or isn't up to the task at hand.
"It's going to be a battle, but I like challenges," said Duke, who went 3-4 with a 4.93 ERA in 21 games (nine starts) for Arizona last year. "They say they're going to take the best 25 and have the best team we can, and that's what you've got to do. I'm excited for the opportunity, and I prepared myself in the offseason to give myself every chance."
Duke, who will also get a look as a reliever, and Hernandez are both non-roster invitees who are pitching for their jobs. It wouldn't be surprising to see Lyles or Sosa start the season in the Minor Leagues considering their lack of experience.
Lyles, one of the club's top prospects entering last year, went 2-7 with a 5.02 ERA in 15 starts as a 20-year-old before getting sent to the Minors. Sosa, acquired from the Giants in the Jeff Keppinger trade, was 3-5 with a 5.23 ERA in 10 starts for Houston. Neither has spent much time at Triple-A. Harrell pitched in six games, making two starts for the Astros, after coming over from Chicago.
"We have a good group of guys here," he said. "The competition and everything is going to make it more fun, and when you get that spot you're really going to feel like you earned something. It's going to be one of those things where whoever does well is going to get the spot, so let the best man win."
Weiland is trying to make a good first impression for an Astros organization that thought so much of him it traded promising closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox to get him and shortstop Jed Lowrie. Weiland pitched in some big games for Boston last September, going 0-3 with a 7.66 ERA in what was nothing short of a huge learning experience.
"There's a lot of young guys like myself going out there, and the main thing is not trying to do too much," Weiland said.
Hernandez is the insurance policy. He's capable of stepping into the rotation and pitching 200 innings like he's done so many times in his career if the Astros aren't comfortable handing the final rotation spot over to any of the other arms.
"The velocity might not be what it used to be, but he's still able to change speeds off of that, and that's huge," Mills said. "You change speeds and you're going to keep hitters off balance."
The challenge immediately facing Brocail is finding enough innings. He's already been on the phone to other teams trying to schedule "B" games when the exhibition season starts. The veterans who have secure spots will pitch in the "B" games, while the young guys with things to prove will take the mound in the Grapefruit League games so the staff can watch them.
"Everybody understands the year we had last year," Brocail said. "We're serious about this and serious about getting better, and the competition is going to be good."