The Astros take center stage in the last Rumor Roundup of the offseason, as they prepare to kick off the regular season against the Rangers at Minute Maid Park on Sunday night.  

Astros unveil new minor-league pitching development plan
While the major-league club heads into the season with bleak short-term hopes, general manager Jeff Luhnow is focused on improving the Astros’ player development system. And, after a year of talent acquisition through trades and his first draft last June, Luhnow is now implementing a new system for developing the pitchers that will come through the Astros’ pipeline and hopefully one day land in their big-league rotation.

Luhnow explained the system to reporters, including Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, on Thursday, noting that he first used the plan during his tenure in the Cardinals’ scouting department. Specifically, the Astros will “piggyback” their minor-league starters, with the actual starter throwing no more than five innings or 75 pitches and the actual long reliever throwing no more than four frames or 60 pitches. Luhnow said that he believes this will be the first time such a program has been used in the upper minors, but the Cardinals employed it at the Single-A level (both Low-A and High-A) a few years ago.

The goal of the system, as Luhnow explained, is to prioritize giving innings to the eight or nine starting pitchers that the team will send to each of its full-season minor-league stops. Luhnow also believes in the notion that pitchers typically suffer injuries in the 90-120 pitch range, when they are fatigued, so the 75-pitch ceiling could help the Astros to keep their prized minor-league assets healthy.

The drawback, of course, is that in most cases, starters will not need to take a third tour of their opponents’ lineups, an element that might limit the team’s ability to evaluate their secondary pitches. Additionally, it’s unclear whether starters capped at 75 pitches in Triple-A would be able to make a smooth transition to the majors, unless manager Bo Porter follows the same plan. Luhnow did not express either concern, and he dismissed a third—that the team would struggle to find work for and develop relievers—by saying that the use of other arms on the roster would be at the minor-league managers’ discretion, from filling in gaps in the middle innings to picking up the crumbs at the end of the game.

For more on the plan and the Astros’ projected minor-league pitching rosters, see the afore-linked Houston Chronicle post.

What to Watch for on Sunday
The “What You Need to Know” column will return on Monday morning, but since there is a game on Sunday night, here is a sneak preview of what’s to come. As I did during the regular season, each weekday, I’ll provide a recap of a notable event or game that took place the previous day, and then a few things to look forward to the following day. In addition, I’ll feature a Matchup of the Day—as I did in the game previews during the postseason—using data from our Matchup Analysis Tool and hitter and pitcher profiles.

Matchup of the Game
The spotlight in the opener falls on Rangers starter Matt Harrison and Astros left fielder and projected number-three hitter Chris Carter. The 26-year-old Carter gained a bit of experience against Harrison during his stint with the Athletics, and since the trade to Houston kept him in the American League West, he will get another dose to begin the season. Carter mauled left-handed pitching to the tune of a .241/.404/.494 triple-slash line in 2012, amassing 11 extra-base hits and nearly as many walks (24) as strikeouts (26) in 109 plate appearances, but Harrison has escaped unscathed in most of their meetings.

Entering the bottom of the first inning on Sunday, Carter is 0-for-7 with two walks and one strikeout versus Harrison, and all of those showdowns have come within the last two years. In addition to the strikeout, Carter has grounded into a double play and popped out twice, so he has not found it easy to make solid contact off of Harrison, one of the hardest-throwing southpaw starters in the league.

Carter did most of his damage last year on the hard stuff, and scuffled—at least in a small sample—on breaking pitches down and away. Harrison threw back-to-back curveballs in their most recent encounter, Carter’s third plate appearance on September 27, 2012, and he has started each of their nine meetings with a fastball, sinker, or cutter. Since the results have favored the lefty, who signed a five-year, $55 million extension in January, he might stick to a similar plan on Sunday night.