David Robertson and the Houston Astros Bullpen Dilemma

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In 2014, the ERA’s of the Astros frontline starters reflected a position of strength, anchored by Dallas Keuchel (2.93), Collin McHugh (2.73), and Scott Feldman (3.74). The future looks extremely bright with plus starting pitching coming down the Houston minor league pipeline.

Unfortunately, the current state of the bullpen tells a different story and reflects lost opportunities. According to the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich, they finished with the worst bullpen ERA in the majors in 2014, at 4.80. That’s a slight improvement from the year prior, when the relievers’ 4.92 ERA was the worst in MLB. Is it a coincidence that Dallas Keuchel was the AL leader in complete games in 2014?

The free agent market appears to be the quickest fix, and Houston is rumored to have aggressively pursued David Robertson and Andrew Miller. Following Miller’s recent signing with the Yankees, I’ll weigh the benefits of Robertson and other potential alternative options for the Astros.

The ‘Obvious’ Free Agent Option, David Robertson

There has been no shortage of rumors swirling around about Houston’s interest in David Robertson. The Astros appear ready to spend on their bullpen and reportedly, Robertson has high salary demands. SI.com’s Scooby Axson reported that Robertson is seeking “Papelbon money.” Separately, Jon Heyman at CBSSports.com stated that Robertson has an offer of about $39 million for three years in hand and Houston was thought to be one interested team..

In 2011, Robertson sported a sparkling MLB career-best 1.08 ERA in 66.2 innings pitched, but hasn’t been close to that mark in the following years. In 2014 and 64.1 IP, David Robertson (currently age 29), went 4-5 and saved 39 games, converting 88.6% of his chances, with a 3.08 ERA. From the surface, these numbers appear to be strong.

Troubling is the fact that Robertson has a MLB career total of 47 SV’s, a career 75.8% MLB sv%, and 2014’s ERA of 3.08 ballooned from 2013’s ERA of 2.04. Looking deeper into Robertson’s 2014 season, according to Fangraphs.com, he sported a 2.76 ERA in the 1st half, but a 3.41 ERA in the second half. There was also a stark contrast between left-handed hitter and right-handed hitter splits against him. He held LHH to a stellar .156/.225/.213, while holding RHH to a mediocre .234/.317/.449. His 2014 Home ERA (3.98) and Road ERA (2.20) splits also showed a tale of two different Robertson’s.

To make matters more complicated, George A. King III reported in the New York Post that the Astros are telling people they are getting used by David Robertson and his representative. If that was true, I’m not impressed.

What about the actual Jonathan Papelbon?

With 9+ years of MLB experience, a MLB career 2.37 ERA, 325 MLB career SV’s, an 88.1% career MLB sv%, and World Series experience on his resume, Jonathan Papelbon (currently age 34) enters the picture. The reeling 2014 Philadelphia Phillies limped into last place at 73-89 and may potentially have some veteran trade chips available. Papelbon is nearing the end of a 4 year $50 million contract, and per Baseball-reference.com, a contingent 2016 option that vests with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 in 2014-2015.

Performance bonuses seemingly appear mutually beneficial for both parties, and Houston’s young core players may benefit from veteran leadership and post-season experience. Optimistically, I would THINK that Philadelphia may be likely to part with its closer for MLB ready pieces, POTENTIALLY absorbing some money for the right deal.

Houston has also shown a past eagerness to match up in trades with the Phillies, swapping closers Brad Lidge and Billy Wagner on two separate occasions. Ed Wade, a current special assistant to the Phillies and former GM to both teams, could have potential Astros prospects in mind, if Houston comes knocking. Meeting bullpen needs via trade could also potentially preserve the Astros 2015 top draft selections and allocate monies towards secondary and tertiary needs.

Potential Cost-Effective Alternatives

Under-the-radar trades, incentive-laden contracts, or minor league invites to Spring Training could be enticing for a veteran player with a high-upside looking to revive his career. Houston’s low-pressure environment might be perfect for rebuilding value. Buy-low reclamation projects could be found in the forms of; Jonathan Broxton, Heath Bell, Wilton Lopez, Ryan Madson, Jason Grilli, Ernesto Frieri, Joel Zumaya, Brian Wilson, and Carlos Marmol.

Who knows? They might catch lightning in a bottle. If not, the Astros didn’t break their backs in the process.

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