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What are the Astros aiming for exactly?

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Having finished with baseball’s worst record three straight years, the Astros have mastered the art of being bad. And it’s worked out for them; thanks to their early draft picks and some veteran-for-prospects trades, they now boast one of the game’s very best farm systems.

That left the Astros with a decision to make entering 2014. Was it time to start going in the other direction and try to put a competitive team on the field? Or was it worth going for one more No. 1 overall draft pick?

It seems like they’ve chosen the former. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

The Astros made their biggest signing in years when they added starting pitcher Scott Feldman on a three-year, $30 million contract. They also traded one of their youngest pitchers in Jordan Lyles for a legitimate starting center fielder in Dexter Fowler. Plus, they signed three veterans for their bullpen in Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and the rehabbing Jesse Crain.

Those all seemed like solid moves with the idea of regaining respectability. It’s certainly not the kind of transition needed to contend in the tough AL West, but it should be sufficient to avoid a fourth straight 100-loss season in 2014.

Their latest move Monday, the signing of Jerome Williams, makes it even more evident that just not losing 100 games is the goal. Williams has no upside; his function is solely to soak up innings. He’s made 40 starts and 29 relief appearances for the Angels the last two seasons, posting a 4.57 ERA. That he can alternate between middle relief and the rotation gives him value, but really, that value comes in the form of not having to throw some 22-year-old minor league prospect to the wolves instead. Basically, he takes away that worst-case scenario of having to continue starting the youngster with the 5.50 ERA.

The Astros of the past could have used a guy like that. But the 2014 Astros? After already adding four veteran pitchers? Honestly, if they think they need a guy like Williams, then doesn’t that mean they’ve failed?

The Astros have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster. 21 of those guys are 25 or older. Two of the three that aren’t, 23-year-old Jarred Cosart and 24-year-old Brett Oberholtzer, are expected to be a part of their rotation anyway. What does it say about all of these 25, 26 and 27-year-old pitchers the Astros are carrying that the team still thinks it needs Williams around?

The early word is that Williams will be in the rotation. The pitcher he’s most likely to bump is left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a 26-year-old who struck out 7.2 batters and walked 3.0 per nine innings in 22 starts and nine relief appearances last season. That K/BB ratio, combined with a very strong groundball rate (56%), would seem to give him some upside. Certainly more than Williams has. If not Keuchel, maybe it will instead be Brad Peacock, who averaged 8.3 K/9 IP in his 14 starts and four relief appearances last season.

Perhaps the early word is wrong. Maybe Williams will be employed in the swing role that Lucas Harrell figured to fill. If so, there’s little harm in that. But that the Astros believed they needed Williams to patch a hole now speaks to the lack of faith they have in all of those options in hand.

63-99, here we come!

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.

Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery could share Cubs’ rotation spot in 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon hasn’t selected a fifth starter for his 2017 rotation yet, but told reporters that he could envision left-handers Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery sharing the spot throughout the year. Neither pitcher was stretched out to the full 200-inning threshold last year, Maddon added, and suggested that the two could alternate innings out of the rotation and bullpen as needed (via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat).

Anderson, 29, was acquired by the Cubs in January on a $3.5 million deal. He’s coming off a rough 2016, during which he underwent back surgery and missed all but 11 1/3 innings of his last season with the Dodgers. His last full, healthy year in the majors yielded a 3.69 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 over 180 1/3 innings with Los Angeles in 2015.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is vying for a rotation spot after pitching almost exclusively from the bullpen during the second half of the Cubs’ 2016 run. The 27-year-old lefty put up a 2.82 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings for Chicago last year, returning in the postseason to post a 3.14 ERA during the Cubs’ championship finish.

Maddon also mentioned the possibility of throwing a sixth starter into the mix, which would help prevent his other starters from getting overworked too early in the year. Either way, Anderson and Montgomery are expected to get a lot of looks early in spring training as rotation spots are finalized in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.