Bullpen is blowin’ up (and not in a good way)


The Houston Astros bullpen is a mess. While the offense and the starting pitching have had their ups and downs this season, the bullpen has been consistently bad. Many fans, including myself, have been critical of Bo Porter’s handling of the ‘pen, but honestly, he doesn’t have much to work with.

Astros relievers are last in the league in ERA, HR/IP, and HR/FB ratio. They are tied for last in losses, rank 29th in strikeouts per inning, and 28th in wins. It all adds up to a WAR of -2.1, which is by far the worst in the league. That’s a negative 2.1 — which suggests a group of replacement players (whatever that is) would do considerably better. So, what exactly is the problem — and what’s the solution?

Jose Cisnero (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Yes, Porter stuck with Hector Ambriz as the setup man for way too long. But what other options did he have? Jose Cisnero appeared to be the logical choice and the youngster did a fine job in his maiden voyage in the setup role. Cisnero earned a hold against the Cardinals on June 26th but hasn’t fared so well since.

Cisnero has entered the game to start the eighth inning three times since the hold against St. Louis. The Astros were ahead in one of those games and tied in the other two. Cisnero earned another hold when the opportunity was there, but failed to keep the game tied on either of his two chances. Solution: Don’t bring him in when the score is tied (there are plenty of other guys in the bullpen that can get a game untied in a hurry) save Cisnero for those rare occasions when there is a lead to protect.

Seriously though, who else can Porter turn to? Josh Fields has allowed at least one run in four of his last five appearances. He’s given up three homers in only thirteen innings and his ERA is up to 5.54. The 27-year old is starting to show why he was left unprotected by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 Draft.

Wesley Wright hasn’t been terribly effective either. Sadly, his 4.11 ERA and 1.43 WHIP are tops amongst lefties out of the Astros bullpen. Travis Blackley has allowed 15 walks and seven homers in only 26 & 1/3 innings. Blackley seems to be more of a contributor to the problem than the solution.

Jose Veras has been adequate as the closer. Basically, he’s pitched well enough to draw interest from contenders looking to add bullpen depth at the deadline. If Veras is indeed traded the Astros bullpen transforms from a mess to a hot mess.

One can’t help but wonder if it is all part of the master plan. When Jeff Luhnow interviewed for the G.M. job and presented his nine hour, 352 page plan* to turn around the franchise he must have had some creative ideas in regard to the construction of the bullpen.

*Since I couldn’t remember exactly how long Luhnow’s presentation was I took the liberty of using hyperbole. Let’s just say it was quite thorough.

I’m thinking Luhnow’s plan for building a bullpen from scratch went something like this:

• Let our young relief specialists gain experience and confidence in the minors. Keep the guys who were drafted or acquired to be relievers down on the farm until we’re sure they are ready to contribute at the big league level.

• Bridge the gap with potential starting pitchers. Give the young guys who have been working as starters a chance to establish themselves in the big leagues as relievers. Some may thrive in the role and others may pitch well enough to be considered for the rotation.

This seems to be the strategy the franchise has employed. If that’s the case — it could prove to be genius — or it could fail miserably. If part one of the plan was to lose a ton of games and secure high draft picks, then it is working.

In addition to Cisnero, the Astros have used Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer, and Dallas Keuchel in the bullpen this season. All were starters in the minors. Rudy Owens and Brad Peacock could also be mentioned in this group although Peacock was used mostly as a starter.

Meanwhile, relievers Josh Zeid, Chia-Jen Lo, Kevin Chapman, and Jason Stoffel continue to toil in the minors. If part two of the plan is to bring all of these guys to the big leagues at once, creating an instant bullpen comprised of pitchers no one has a book on, then it might work. That remains to be seen.

Does my theory hold water? I mean it does seem odd that Jordan Lyles has been taking his lumps for three straight seasons in the majors while a slew of 25-year old relief specialists have yet to even sniff the big leagues. Seems like a classic case of “lose now, win later” to me. What do you think?