One particular saving grace for the Astros during the disappointing 2016 season was the emergence of two young pitchers in the bullpen.
Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz were valuable contributors to the Astros and the team winning 84 games last year. Sure, the win total didn’t match the expectations that most people had for the franchise. The team finished third behind the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. Encouraging player development though is always a nice consolation prize.
For example, Devenski posted a 2.2 WAR in 2016. Feliz posted a 0.8 WAR too. That is a combined 3.0 WAR between the duo. That isn’t too shabby for two pitchers who pitched significant innings of relief for the first time last year.
The question as Spring Training rapidly approaches is whether the team’s collective decision makers will leave both young pitchers in the bullpen. And how important they could be regardless of the role that is assigned to them.
On one hand, I understand the reasoning behind letting both Devenski and Feliz get a shot in the starting rotation. Once you get past a healthy Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers, there should be an open competition for the last two starting jobs. No offense to Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton, the presumptive favorites in this competition. The best pitchers in the running though should win the jobs. And that could very well be Fiers and Morton when the dust settles.
I wouldn’t discount Devenski or Feliz though. Both have demonstrated in the minors that they can be viable starting pitchers. Sure, only Devenski started any games, five total, last season in the majors. Feliz made two starts for the franchise’s AAA affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies. And both pitchers have experience starting in the minors so it isn’t like they don’t have that background.
However, I am all for keeping both Devenski and Feliz in the bullpen this year if possible. One of the key components of numerous contenders is the quality depth of their relief corps. In conjuction with Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, and Will Harris, the Astros unit could be one the deepest, and best, in all of baseball. As last season and the playoffs taught us, the usage of bullpens is liable to change in the near future from one degree to another.
But why do I think that keeping the pair in the bullpen may be the best course of action for the Astros? Well, I have my reasons.
For example, Devenski may be better suited for a role in the bullpen. Let’s not forget that while his changeup is impressive and his fastball is average, he sort of lacks a third pitch that can be a notable asset. He did start throwing his slider more though in August (14.93%) and September (36.70%). In fact, he threw that slider more in September than his changeup (31.65%) and fastball (31.65%). When Devenski did throw the slider hitters only managed a .118 batting average against.
If he can harness that slider in conjunction with his already above-average changeup and average fastball, then he could find himself in the starting rotation conversation. At the same time, I would like more than just one to two months worth of sample size before I come to a final determination. Until then I am for placing him in a role that I know he did well, which was in the bullpen. But if he can demonstrate the ability to use three pitches well then I could see my mind being swayed quite easily.
The same school of thought in my opinion could be used for Feliz and a case to keep him in the bullpen.
Currently, the 23-year old has primarily two pitches: a four-seam fastball and a slider. Oh, he occasionally throws a changeup. The catch with his changeup usage what that it dropped considerably as the season progressed. By the team September rolled around he only threw it about 0.71% of the time. On the other hand, his fastball usage was near 70%. Slider usage was near 30%.
Like I stated with Devenski, I would like to see Feliz develop a dependable third pitch that can help round out his pitching arsenal. Most starters nowadays need three solid pitches. I will admit few don’t need that third pitch though. It would still be optimal though for Feliz to develop that third option in my opinion.
Feliz is slightly different than Devenski on the surface in regards to higher velocity. While he was in the bullpen, Feliz averaged fastball topped out at around 96 MPH. Devenski hovered around 93-94 MPH. Just a tick or two, but noticeable enough in my opinion. Of course, this data is coming roles in the bullpen. We all know that velocity for both pitchers would likely change in a starter role.
At the end of the day, Devenski and Feliz could be important pieces to this year’s Astros roster. Their ability to either start or relieve is valuable. While the exact roles have yet to be defined, it is plausible to see them do well no matter the assignment.
However, I would prefer to see them start the season in the bullpen. When you consider how bullpen usage has changed in recent years, I wonder how much the Astros upper management would like to utilize their relievers. With the versatility of Devenski and Feliz, they could play an important part in that plan.
**Statistics and pitch data courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball**