Former manager Brad Mills even tried to go with a four-man rotation for a stretch, which took a huge toll on the bullpen and eventually caught up with the Astros. By the time the season ended, Edgar Gonzalez was in the fifth spot after pitching in the Mexican League earlier in the year.
The results weren't pretty. The Astros finished the 2012 season ranked 15th in the 16-team National League in ERA by starters (4.62) and fewest innings pitched by starters (918 2/3).
That's why one of the biggest things on general manager Jeff Luhnow's to-do list this winter was increasing the starting pitching depth at the upper levels. It will not only give the Astros more competition this spring, but leave them less exposed during the season if a starter gets hurt or proves ineffective.
"Last year, if we had an injury, we had to do something creative, like bring Abad up as a starter even though he had been a reliever," Luhnow said. "We don't want to be forced to do things like that, and I think we're going to have enough good arms in Triple-A that if we have an injury or somebody isn't performing the way we expect them to, we can easily swap them out and bring another guy up. That's going to really help us a lot, especially going into a division with such offense-minded teams."
The five starters who finished the season -- Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Dallas Keuchel, Jordan Lyles and Gonzalez -- are all back this year, and Luhnow traded for Alex White, Brad Peacock and John Ely, and signed veterans Philip Humber and Erik Bedard. Throw prospects Jarred Cosart, Rudy Owens, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, Ross Seaton and Jose Cisnero in the mix, and there's no shortage of quantity or quality.
"I think it's going to be great," said Keuchel, who went 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA in 16 starts in 2012. "There's a few veterans and guys that have been tested in the big leagues and stuff like that. It's going to be fun. I think we're all going to give our very best and we're going to see what happens."
Luhnow said earlier this winter that Norris, Harrell and Lyles were locks to be in the rotation, and he gave Humber and Bedard a leg up for the two remaining spots. But nothing is even close to being set, and the Astros have six-plus weeks to see what their crop of starters looks like.
"When you start talking about the rotation, the one thing I like is the quality of the depth we have in the organization, and I think it's going to sort itself out," said manager Bo Porter. "Like I told our guys, this is not a competition that will take place during Spring Training. It's a competition throughout the season."
White, who appeared in 23 games and made 20 starts for the Rockies last year, is all for more competition.
"It absolutely is a good thing," he said. "We have a lot of good arms, a lot of starters. It's going to push us to work a lot harder this spring and see what we can do and see if we can get in the rotation."
Ely has pitched in 25 games for the Dodgers the past three seasons, including 19 starts, and he believes competition brings out the best in everybody.
"Baseball is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of sport," he said. "You don't perform during spring or when you get your chances, there won't be another chance. I'm going to take every opportunity and make the most of it."
Of course, finding chances for all those pitchers to work in games will be difficult as the spring progresses and innings begin to stack up. The Astros have talked about it as an organization and will have to use the back fields for simulated games and schedule some B games for everyone to get an equal chance.
"We have three days off, and on those three days off there's probably some guys that aren't going to get a day off," said pitching coach Doug Brocail. "They're going to come in and pitch in a B game because we want to see everybody. I want to give everybody the opportunity to make this club."
Though Luhnow has indicated Humber might have a head start over some of the competition entering camp, the right-hander is taking nothing for granted. He's gotten to know several of his fellow starters early in camp and looks forward to what he calls a "friendly competition."
"It seems like a good group of guys," he said. "We're going to compete, but at the same time we're going to root for each other."