Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers were joined at the hip throughout the off season and have continued to be that way through the first week of spring training.
McCullers, his wife and dogs moved to Houston from their hometown of Tampa, Fla., last winter so he could work out daily with Astros’ starting rotation-mate Keuchel.
The two are sharing a condominium this spring and their lockers are next to each other in the clubhouse of the new training complex that the Astros share with the Washington Nationals.
The Astros have World Series aspirations following an offseason in which they overhauled their offense by signing right fielder Josh Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran as free agents while trading for New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann and claiming left fielder Nori Aoki off waivers from the Seattle Mariners.
Yet, in many ways, the Astros’ hopes this season ride on the health of Keuchel and McCullers.
“They’re our top two starters, the anchors of our entire pitching staff,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said before a recent spring training workout. “So, yeah, them staying healthy would make a pretty big difference.”
After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2015 while helping the Astros to their first postseason berth since 2005, Keuchel was shut down for the season last year on Aug. 28 because of a sore shoulder.
Keuchel finished 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in 26 starts, a year after going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 1.01 WHIP — both AL-leading figures — in 33 starts.
Keuchel, 29, said his shoulder never felt right last season and regrets not speaking to the team’s medical staff sooner.
“I thought I could pitch through it,” Keuchel said. “That was a mistake. I ended up hurting the team by continuing to go out there when I wasn’t effective. My body doesn’t respond as well as it used to, thanks to Father Time, and I need to be more cognizant of that.”
Keuchel ramped up his workout routine over the winter and the left-hander invited McCullers to join him. McCullers was limited to 14 starts in 2016 during his first full major-league season because of shoulder and elbow issues.
McCullers, 23, went 6-5 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.54 WHIP last season following a rookie year in which he had also had a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts to go with a 6-7 record and 1.18 WHIP.
“It was frustrating to miss so much time but I try to look back at last year as a learning experience,” McCullers said. “I feel like I have found a better routine now in which I can stay stronger over the course of the season. You’re always looking for that balance between making sure you’re doing enough to keep healthy but not overdoing it over the course of a long season.
“Working out with Dallas has helped. He’s a little older, a little more experienced and he’s very routine-oriented. I feel great this spring. I can throw all pitches without any pain. I’m excited.”
So, too, is Keuchel. He says he has felt “free and easy” during his early throwing sessions this spring.
Starting pitching is perhaps the Astros’ biggest question mark as they look to return to the playoffs after falling to 84-78 last season, 11 games behind the American League West-champion Texas Rangers and five games out in the wild card standings.
Expected to fill out the rotation behind Keuchel and McCullers are Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton. All three are solid, but not in the category of the top-two starters.
“The encouraging thing for me is that Dallas and Lance are in their normal spring training progressions,” Hinch said. “They’re not talking about the health of their arms, just what they need to do to get ready for the season.”
By John Perrotto