About this time last year the Astros tabbed relief pitcher Josh Fields with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft. Despite a history of command issues, the Astros liked his mid-nineties fastball enough to take a chance on the (then) 27-year old righty. The club was able to stash him on the roster for the entire season and Fields remains on the 40-man entering the 2014 campaign.
Some creative maneuvering helped keep Fields on the roster all season. After pitching to a total of two hitters in the first three games of the season, Fields was placed on the disabled list with a strained forearm. Fields would spend almost 60 days rehabbing the injury before being recalled to the big leagues. Fields was gone so long that his third appearance of the season actually came in Jarred Cosart‘s second big league start.
Over the next two months Fields would be used mostly in low to medium leverage situations — and with mixed results. His strikeout numbers were gaudy but, when hitters managed to make contact, they were hitting the ball a long way. By mid-July, Fields had given up five homeruns in only 15 & 1/3 total innings.
But things took an interesting turn for Josh on August 5th. Brought in with a 2-0 lead and a pair of runners on base and two outs in the eighth inning, Fields would strike out four straight Boston hitters to secure his first big league save. What a tremendous feeling it must have been for Fields to turn in such a dominant performance against his former team. But that feeling would be short-lived. Two nights later, in his next appearance, the Red Sox would exact revenge upon Fields. Entering the game in the ninth with a 2-run lead, Josh would surrender a hit and a walk before a 3-run homer by Stephen Drew turned him into the losing pitcher.
Fields would continue to see action in high leverage situations down the stretch, finishing the season with five saves and six holds to his credit. Although the Astros ended the season on a 15-game losing streak, Fields actually pitched well during that time — keeping his team in the game and giving them a chance to win. Fields allowed only two runs over his final 13 innings of the season and, in September, lowered his season ERA from 6.18 to a semi-respectable 4.97.
The strikeout numbers are encouraging, as is Fields’ tidy 11.1% line drive rate. But his 15.77% HR/FB rate isn’t. In fact, it’s downright scary. If Fields can get a handle on the homeruns, he could be a useful weapon in the Astros bullpen going forward. If not, I see some long bus rides in his future. Fields won’t be forced to stay on the big league roster all season and, especially if he struggles, should see some time in AAA.
The 2014 bullpen promises to be improved (mostly due to the fact that it couldn’t possibly get any worse). The Astros have already brought in a number of new arms and the competition should be wide open this spring in Kissimmee. Newly acquired relievers Darin Downs, Raul Valdes, and Anthony Bass will be among those trying to push Fields and the other incumbents out of the mix. Chad Qualls is likely to have a spot sewn up and the club may also add another veteran reliever in the not-so-distant future.
Fields will be given an opportunity to make the team. It will be up to Josh to make the most of that opportunity.