With Mark Melancon out of the picture Wilton Lopez might be the favorite to take over as the Astros closer in 2012. But with plenty of live young arms ticketed for Kissimee this Spring, Lopez will not simply inherit the job. He will have to outperform the competition which consists of Fernando Rodriguez, Juan Abreu, and Brandon Lyon, among others.
Last season Lopez missed his chance to become the closer when Brandon Lyon went on the disabled list. Lopez was recovering from an elbow injury at the time and skipper Brad Mills chose to go with Mark Melancon instead. Melancon held on to the job and Lopez stayed in his familiar setup role for most of the year.
Although Lopez doesn’t have “lights out” stuff, he does possess a couple of valuable qualities for the ninth inning. Lopez throws strikes. In 2010 he walked only five batters in 67 innings. Last season Lopez walked 18 hitters in his 71 innings pitched. That equates to 2.28 BB/9 IP or 6.0 percent. That’s not nearly as impressive as his 2010 numbers, but still rates much better than league average. Lopez has also consistently induced two ground balls for every fly ball throughout his career.That 2:1 ratio puts Lopez among the league’s elite.
With the exception of the increased number of walks, Lopez pretty much duplicated his breakout 2010 season in 2011. His 2-6 record made it feel like Lopez was a bit of a disappointment. That record could be partially attributed to the fact that the Astros managed only 56 wins for the year. One discouraging trend did develop for Lopez in 2011. I can’t find the data to back it up but I know Lopez struggled to keep inherited runners from scoring, something he seemed to excel at in 2010. If anyone knows where I can find that data please let me know.
If inherited runners continue to be a problem for Lopez the role of closer may actually make sense. Modern-day closers generally enter the game to start the ninth inning, thus eliminating the inherited runners scenario.
If healthy, Lopez is one of the only relievers on the roster that is pretty much a lock to break camp with the team. Unless the Astros surprise me by going outside of the organization for a closer, the job should be his to lose. But the Astros could very well go with a “closer by committee” approach if some of the young arms step up and deliver.