Does the date June 11, 2003 ring a bell? That was the date that Roy Oswalt left a start versus the Yankees in the 5th inning, and Astros pitcher’s made history: the first combined no-hitter with 6 pitchers in MLB history. This was arguably one of the best Astros’ bullpen ever, with Peter Munro and all the others. Sorry Peter, what made this bullpen one of the top bullpens was the trio of Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge, and Octavio Dotel. This was the last time you could honestly say that the starter only had to go 6 innings, the bullpen could take it from there.
On December 10th, 2014, the Astros worked towards building a stronger bullpen by signing Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. In 2014, the Astros bullpen blew 26 saves. The Astros made a positive step forward towards winning again. To quote Evan Drellich, “Gregerson’s three-year, $18.5 million deal includes incentives that are related to closing. In all, Gregerson’s deal could be worth $21 million.” Does that mean that Luke Gregerson is the closer? We may not know until Spring Training.
“Gregerson’s three-year, $18.5 million deal includes incentives that are related to closing”-Evan Drellich
What we do know is that new manager A.J. Hinch does not believe in bullpen by committee, so once a closer is selected, Astros fans won’t have to ask “who’s closing tonight?” like we did in 2014. While they don’t have a slam dunk closer, the Astros have more competition for the spot. So barring any other trades, injuries, or poor spring training performance, this should be the Astros bullpen this year.
I’m going to assume that the favorite to fill the closer role right now would be the fist-pumping-while-flipping-over Chad Qualls. Last year Qualls had 19 saves in 25 opportunities. In 2014 Qualls had a 1-5 record, 3.33 ERA, 43 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. Chad Qualls broke into the Astros bullpen in 2004 after Billy Wagner was no longer in Houston, 11 years ago.
Qualls had playoff experience with the Astros in 2004-2005 and the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. Over Quall’s career he has converted 70 saves in 121 opportunities. He was not dominant in 2014, but he pitched decently enough.
The reports say that Luke Gregerson has closer type incentives in his contract, so maybe the Astros intend to have him close in 2015. The good news is that he had a great season last year in Oakland, going 5-5, with a 2.12 ERA, and 72 strikeouts in 72 innings. He’s been very successful as a setup man, however, he has struggled in the 9th inning role. In 2014 he converted 3 saves out of 11 saves, for a 27% conversion rate. Maybe he had a bad year, but his career percentage stands at 37%.
So his overall numbers look good, while some question whether he will be successful as a closer. As quoted by Evan Drellich, “Also to be noted: it doesn’t sound like the Astros will enter spring training with a wide open closer competition. Drellich seems to think that Luke Gregerson will be the closer in 2015.
Since the Astros have moved to the American League, I am glad we don’t face the Cardinals much anymore. I haven’t really seen Pat Neshek pitch much. However, watching video, he offers a side arm throwing motion that will be good change of angle between Josh Fields, Chad Qualls, and Gregerson. He earned this payday with the Astros after an outstanding season in 2014, in which he went 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 71.1 innings.
He served as closer when Trevor Rosenthal was injured last year, and converted 6 out of 10 save opportunities. Neshek is 34 years old, so a two, maybe three year deal with the Astros should be productive. Could he close? Maybe.
Next to Michael Foltynewicz, Josh Fields is the most exciting player on the Astros to watch pitch. Some days he looks un-hittable, other days it’s batting practice. Over his career, his numbers do not do him justice. In 2014, Fields went 4-6 with a 4.45 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 54.2 innings. In 2014, when Fields served as closer when Chad Qualls was not available, he converted 4 out of 8 chances. He should continue to improve as a pitcher, and should have closer stuff once he learns to pitch. He was taken in the 2013 Rule V draft from the Boston Red Sox.
The question is, can Tony Sipp duplicate what he did with the Astros last year? When he joined the Houston Astros after being released by the Padres, he was arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen. His numbers leveled off in the second half of the season, but was effective. In 2014 he went 4-3 with a 3.38 ERA, and 63 strikeouts in 50 innings. He was used several times in save situations, hence the closer by committee Bo Porter used last year, converting 4 out of 6 saves.
A waiver claim by the Astros in the 2014 off season, he pitched for Diamondbacks last year. He was 0-3 with a 4.34 ERA 35 strikeouts in 29 innings. If the Astros do indeed re-sign Jose Veras, I could see Harris not making the team depending on who doesn’t make the rotation.
Chapman will serve as the true lefty specialist on the team. He was wild in his 2014 season, and had a 4.54 ERA. He is another depth part to the bullpen, and he should make the team with a good spring training.
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The big difference between the 2015 and 2003 bullpen, is the Astros had a closer in Billy Wagner at the top of his game. The 2015 Astros appear to have a closer in Gregerson, but he’s not refereed to as a dominant closer yet. I think the ability of the group as a whole is good, though.
So is the 2015 bullpen better? Tell me what your thoughts are.
One of our writers at Climbing Tal’s Hill thinks that the bullpen makes the Astros playoff contenders.
For more on Gregerson and Neshek, read this.