Who will emerge as Astros closer?


The Astros recently traded closer Jose Veras to Detroit for a young outfield prospect and a player to be named later. Hector Ambriz, who started the year as Veras’ setup man, proved to be ineffective and has been demoted to AAA. That leaves a gaping hole to be filled at the back end of the Houston bullpen. Who will step up to fill the void?

The Astros bullpen is in a state of of transition. Chia-Jen Lo and Josh Zeid have been called up from the minors to take the roster spots vacated by Veras and Ambriz. Although neither had ever pitched in the big leagues prior to this week, both Lo and Zeid have pretty good track records.  The opportunity is there for one or both of these guys to nail down a spot as a late innings reliever in Houston.

Bo Porter has proclaimed that he will be employing the dreaded “bullpen by committee” strategy (at least temporarily). I added the part in parentheses because Porter has been known to change his mind at the drop of a hat. Bo did go on to say that he is hopeful that someone will emerge from the group to become the regular closer. Until that happens, we can get used to seeing Astros relievers used in a variety of roles.

Last night’s extra inning contest in Minnesota proved to be a valuable yardstick for measuring the performances of multiple relievers in pressure-filled situations. I’m not suggesting that Porter should make his decision based on only one game, but I am hoping that Bo took some notes that he can use when the time comes to make a choice.

Jarred Cosart had another fantastic outing and turned the game over to the bullpen in the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead. These are the types of games that a team with a strong bullpen usually wins. But, as we’ve already established,  the Astros aren’t a team with a strong bullpen.

Jose Cisnero (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Jose Cisnero, who is probably the first choice of most fans to fill the role of closer, was the first pitcher summoned from the ‘pen. Cisnero has been used in high leverage situations in the recent past, but with mixed results. Jose would have another rough outing, giving up a run on three hits while only managing to retire one batter. Cisnero would leave with the game tied and a pair of runners on base. Fortunately, Wesley Wright and Josh Fields were able to strand those runners — otherwise Cisnero could have been on the hook for his third loss of the year. Instead, Jose was charged with his second blown save.

Cisnero may be the Astros best option at closer, but his recent struggles would suggest the timing isn’t right. His current stretch of ineffectiveness has produced the type of results that would get most closers demoted from the role. Over his last nine appearances Cisnero has allowed eight earned runs in only seven innings pitched, raising his ERA from 2.27 to 3.59. I’m a believer in Cisnero for the long haul because he has great stuff. But right now I think he needs to be utilized in more low pressure situations until he gets back on track.

Relief pitching is one of the most difficult aspects of a ballclub to predict. The performances of relievers tends to fluctuate from day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year. Example: Mark Melancon did a nice job as the Astros closer down the stretch in 2011. In Boston in 2012, Melancon couldn’t get anyone out and pitched his way straight back to the minors. Traded to Pittsburgh in the offseason, Melancon has reestablished himself as a shutdown reliever and is now thriving as the Pirates closer since Jason Grilli was forced to the D.L. with an arm injury.

Back to last night’s parade of Astros relievers; Wesley Wright got the job done, striking out the only batter he faced. A hot stretch by Wright could temporarily land him the closer’s job, but I’m not a big fan of him as any kind of a long term solution. The lefty simply allows too many runners to reach base.

Josh Fields came in after Wright and got a big strikeout to end the eighth inning. But the ninth inning didn’t go as well for Josh. After a walk to the leadoff hitter and a sacrifice bunt, Fields exited the contest in favor of Chia-Jen Lo. Fields had impressive numbers in the minors as a closer, but has had trouble keeping the ball in the park as a big-leaguer. The 27-year old with a 6.50 ERA doesn’t appear to be the answer at this time.

Chia-Jen Lo (Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports)

Although Lo was credited with a blown save after allowing an inherited runner to score, it didn’t have to be that way. Lo had Chris Herrmann struck out but some poor umpiring resulted in a walk for the Twins pinch hitter. After Brian Dozier’s game-tying single, Lo was able to retire both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with the winning run in scoring position. I, for one, was impressed with the way Lo kept his cool and got the game into extra innings. Lo is an interesting option and I’d like to see him get a chance at the start of the ninth instead of trying to clean up another reliever’s mess.

Travis Blackley pitched a scoreless tenth inning in last night’s loss. That’s great — but the tatooed Aussie shouldn’t be an option at closer due to his high walk rate and his propensity for getting tatooed by opposing hitters. Blackley’s homerun rate is not what you want from your closer.

Josh Zeid was next to the mound in Houston’s Friday night parade of relievers. The 26-year old rookie dispatched the Twinkies in 1-2-3 fashion and has yet to allow a hit in three major league relief outings. Zeid has also had success as a closer at the AAA level and could be Porter’s best option for ninth inning duties for the next two months.