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Astros Bullpen: Assessing the left-handed reliever options

May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Ashur Tolliver (40) pitches during the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Ashur Tolliver (40) pitches during the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /
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Which left-handed relievers do the Astros have in camp, and which ones could make the team?

Coming into 2016, the Astros felt comfortable with their relief pitching from the left side. They had just re-signed Tony Sipp after he posted a stellar 1.99 ERA in 2015 and had strong right-handed options in the bullpen as well. Sipp then struggled to a 4.95 ERA in 2016, leaving fans wondering if the Astros would bring in another lefty.

Instead, the front office stood pat, giving rise to an interesting battle in Spring Training. Sipp returns, along with Kevin Chapman and Ashur Tolliver, both of whom spent most of 2016 in the minors. Non-roster invitee C.J. Riefenhauser could also be a factor as well.

Bullpen Overview

First, it would be helpful to examine how many bullpen spots are available. Assuming the Astros carry the traditional 12 pitchers, that allows them to carry seven relievers. Barring injury, righties Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris and Chris Devenski are locked in. They will also likely carry an extra multi-inning reliever. Righties Mike Fiers (if he does not make the rotation) and Michael Feliz would be clear options for that spot.

The boys at Talking Stros talked about the bullpen options last night.

That leaves two spots remaining. One will almost certainly go to Sipp, considering he is to be paid $6 million this year. The Astros will simply have to hope he has a bounce-back season.

The other spot could go to either a righty or a lefty, depending on who steps up and earns it. Feliz and Jandel Gustave could be in the mix, along with the lefties mentioned above. But one of them will have to win the job.

The candidates

Mar 24, 2015; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Kevin Chapman (66) throws against the New York Mets at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 24, 2015; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Kevin Chapman (66) throws against the New York Mets at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports /

Chapman is a familiar face to Astros fans, having seen action in Houston in each of the last four seasons. His Achilles’ heel has been his control, or lack thereof, as he’s averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings in the majors. He coughed up eight runs on 15 hits with four walks in eight big league innings in 2016.

The Astros claimed Tolliver off waivers in December after he made his major league debut in 2016, albeit making just five appearances. He posted a 2.42 ERA in Double-A and a 1.42 ERA in Triple-A last year for the Orioles organization. Control was sometimes a problem as well, though historically to a lesser extent than Chapman.

As a non-roster invitee, Riefenhauser has a tougher road to Houston. He didn’t pitch in the majors in 2016 and owned a 6.30 ERA across 24 appearances with the Rays from 2014-2015. He also walked nearly six batters per nine innings in Triple-A last year. Apparently, control problems are a common thread within this competition.

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The Astros’ other left-handed non-roster invitee, Brian Holmes, has primarily been a starter in the minors. He reached Triple-A for the first time in 2016, giving up three runs in one inning of work. He likely will not factor into the team’s bullpen plans.

The race

Chapman and Tolliver have the best shot, with Riefenhauser a potential dark horse. The key for all three of them is to minimize the walks and display improved control. And with the likes of Robinson Cano and Rougned Odor in the division, having a tough lefty will be a huge boost.

Next: Astros Bullpen: Saving the lead with Chris Devenski

However, if the Astros decide to — or are forced to — go with Sipp as the only lefty, they will need him to return to form. Otherwise, they could be shopping for bullpen help this summer.

***Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com***

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