Going into the offseason the Astros are expected to address their three most glaring weaknesses, perhaps by adding a few Free Agents to the team. We’ve already taken a look at the outfielders and starting pitchers the Astros might target. Today I will focus on perhaps the team’s most pressing need, the bullpen.
There are plenty of arms available this winter. However, the Astros decision scientists will have their work cut out for them because relief pitching is one of the most difficult commodities to predict.
Performance can vary greatly from year to year. Free Agent closer Fernando Rodney is a prime example. Rodney had a career year in 2012, posting a 0.777 WHIP a 0.60 ERA, and 48 saves to finish fifth in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award. Those numbers could have made Rodney a lot of money in free agency, but after a disappointing 2013 in which he walked nearly five batters per nine innings, Fernando’s payday should be considerably smaller. His inconsistency is probably enough to scare the Astros away from getting into a bidding war for Rodney’s services.
Other closers on the market include Joe Nathan and Chris Perez. The Rangers let Nathan walk due to the combination of his advancing age and declining velocity. Even though he converted 43 of 46 save opportunities and posted a 0.897 WHIP, Texas decided against paying Nathan $14.1 million for the 2014 season. The Rangers have younger, less expensive options for the back of the bullpen and would rather spend that money on offensive upgrades. The Indians say goodbye to Perez because of his recent injury history and off-the-field legal issues. I think the Astros would also be wise to pass on both of these individuals.
Another pitcher that the Indians probably won’t bring back is Matt Albers. A native of Sugar Land and a former Astro, Albers could be a nice fit for the ‘Stros. Entering his age 31 season, Albers appears to be in the prime of his career. The Clements High School grad posted a career best 1.127 WHIP in 2012, splitting the season between Arizona and Boston. Matt followed that up with a productive season in Cleveland, establishing himself as a solid late inning option for skipper Terry Francona.
Although he is not a strikeout pitcher, Albers has excellent career splits including a paltry 17.7 line drive percentage and a ground ball rate of 52.3%. Albers made $1.75 million last season and, although a raise is to be expected, he should be within the Astros price range.
Jesse Crain is another reliever with Houston ties that has grabbed the attention of Astros fans. A University of Houston product, Crain was enjoying his best season as a pro in 2013 before landing on the disabled list in late June with a shoulder injury. Over the past three seasons, Crain has seen a significant spike in his strikeout numbers and his velocity has remained constant. He has also done a nice job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his high fly ball percentage may not translate into the same kind of success at Minute Maid Park. Overall, I think the risks outweigh the possible rewards when considering Crain.
As far as relievers trying to come back from injuries, Crain has plenty of company. Former closer Ryan Madson has to be considered the biggest risk of that group. The Reds shelled out $6 million for Madson in 2012 and the Angels paid him more than $3 million last season. Thanks to elbow ligament replacement surgery the former Phillie never threw a pitch for either team and was released by the Angels in August. Madson will be lucky to land anything more than a minor league deal. I say stay away from him.
Late inning specialists Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and Edward Mujica are also on the market. Balfour, an All-Star for the Athletics last season, will come with a high price tag. The 35-year old Australian saved 38 games in 41 opportunities and is definitely one of the best relievers available.
Despite an excellent track record in the regular season, Detroit let Benoit walk after he struggled in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see where the 36-year old lands and what kind of payday he gets. I expect a team that is looking for a closer to take a chance on him. Might that team be the Astros?
Mujica, 29, has posted a sub-1.05 WHIP in each of the last four seasons. Surprisingly, he has bounced around the league — spending time with four different organizations during that time period. Mujica was forced into closing duties early last season when the Cardinals lost Jason Motte to injury. He responded with an All-Star performance but was deemed expendable after the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal. Considering his age and his recent success, Mujica’s services should be in high demand this winter.
Poor man’s closer Kevin Gregg could be more in the Astros price range than the aforementioned relievers. Gregg resurrected his career with the Cubs last season, saving 33 games in 38 chances. But some of his peripheral stats, including a high walk rate and a 116 xFIP- suggests his overall performance was well below league average. If it looks like a turkey and smells like a turkey — it’s probably a turkey. I say the Astros should stay away from Gregg as well.
A couple of lefties that the ‘Stros could be interested in are Scott Downs and J.P. Howell. Houston currently has left-handers Kevin Chapman, Raul Valdes, and Darin Downs on the roster. You can never have too many lefties but, come to think of it, maybe one Downs is enough. Scratch that idea and let’s concentrate on Howell. A former first round pick, Howell went 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA and posted a 1.6 bWAR with the Dodgers last season.
The market for relievers looks to be wide open. There are another 60 or so names on the list that I didn’t mention. There is likely to be a hidden gem among them. Hopefully our decision scientists will find him.