The Houston Astros did a massive overhaul to one of the worst bullpens in baseball before the 2015 season, and the Astros bullpen started the season as one of the best in baseball. The Astros signed funky throwing Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson and claimed Will Harris off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The bullpen already had 2014 waiver claim Tony Sipp, Chad Qualls, and 2014 Rule V pick Josh Fields. However, the Astros built a bullpen without having that shut-you-down type reliever. The bullpen unraveled at times with the pitchers’ not having the stuff to get out of jams consistently.
The bullpen consisted of different pitching styles, which was what GM Jeff Luhnow’s plan, the only problem is that they didn’t have someone with overpowering stuff, just a bunch of soft tossers. The lack of a Kelvin Herrera or Wade Davis type of reliever to hold the lead for the Astros in game four of the ALDS which cost them the series win. I know your first instinct is that the Astros will not pony up the cash or prospects for a big time closer. Even some of the writers at CTH say there is no way that the Astros will sign a big name, they will trade for a hard-throwing no-name reliever instead.
With the moves that they made last offseason and the rumored Craig Kimbrel trade that the Astros discussed with the Padres signals that the Astros are making the bullpen a priority. Luhnow learned his lesson in 2013-14 about skimping in the bullpen as he had to bring pitchers who were not ready to pitch important innings. The 2014 Astros led the league with 26 blown saves. The 2015 bullpen decreased the number of blown saves down to 20, which was what exactly the great Kansas City Royals’ bullpen had too in the regular season. The Astros invested in the bullpen and got back to the playoffs, why would they stop trying to improve for 2016?
It is no secret that Luhnow wants that flame-throwing reliever because it was rumored that he was all systems go to trade for a reliever. Apparently a trade was discussed with the Padres for Craig Kimbrel as I wrote about here: A look at the rejected trade package of Craig Kimbrel to the Houston Astros. Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman will be two of Luhnow’s top targets on the trade market, but they won’t come cheap. Trades have weakened the Astros farm system a little, especially after trading Brett Phillips and Josh Hader. However, Luhnow has said that the plus side of having a deep farm system is that they can be used to improve the big club through trades.
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While there are not any big time impact relievers on the market, there are a few names on the market that the Astros could take a risk on. Such names as Tyler Clippard, Antonio Bastardo, Ryan Madson, and Sergio Santos are sure to be on the Astros offseason shopping list. While none of those are closers, they could strengthen the Astros bullpen even further.
Don’t forget the in-house options the Astros have for the bullpen in Vincent Velasquez, James Hoyt, and maybe even Mark Appel. It’s too early in the offseason to get a good feel about what the Astros will or should do, but the bullpen could be the key that opens the door for the Astros in the playoffs. I think that the Astros got a taste of the playoffs, and they want more.