Astros: Bullpen help is top priority as the trade deadline looms

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 06: Collin McHugh #31 and Brad Peacock #41 of the Houston Astros take a ride in the bullpen cart prior to the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 6, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 06: Collin McHugh #31 and Brad Peacock #41 of the Houston Astros take a ride in the bullpen cart prior to the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 6, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) /

As the Astros look forward to the “unofficial” second half of the season, the trade deadline looms on the horizon.

If you were to examine the Astros‘ bullpen exclusively by the numbers, you’d find a unit with the second-best ERA (2.75) with the best strikeout-minus-walk rate (23.7%). It is not idiotic to think that Houston has one of the better bullpens in baseball this season. Do I dare say one of the best? Even if you don’t agree with advanced metrics, the combination of low ERA and walk rate combined with a high strikeout rate is a compelling piece of evidence.

That said, one cannot ignore the various underlying issues. Let’s look at some advanced metrics now. For example, the bullpen has a 2.13 Win Probability Added, or WPA, which is roughly above-average based on the scale at FanGraphs. But the unit’s -2.72 Clutch rating is easily the worst in baseball. If you aren’t familiar with Clutch, it is a rating on how a player(s) performed in high leverage situations. If you watched the Astros this season though, the dreadful Clutch rating comes to no surprise. Basically, the Astros bullpen has been quite good on the whole, yet quite lousy in high leverage spots. That’s definitely an interesting development.

On the surface, the Astros don’t necessarily need just another arm in the bullpen. The team has plenty of those already, and those arms are usually quality ones. Let’s not pretend the team is running out Hector Ambriz or Paul Clemens from 2013 in relief. Even with its warts, the 2018 bullpen has generally been an effective one, not a trash heap. There are good arms in this ‘pen even with the recent demotion Ken Giles.

But the Giles situation is a key reason why another reliever could be a top priority as the trade deadline approaches.

Despite a 0.00 ERA in 13 appearances in save situations, Giles was obviously a disaster in non-save situations with a 8.20 ERA in 21 appearances. The “easy solution” would be to pitch Giles in only save situations, yet this is simply unrealistic. There are going to be games when he appears in non-save situations. And can a team really trust a reliever to only appear in save situations? At some point the Astros could need Giles when the team is truly in a jam. If it isn’t a save situation, how well will Giles pitch? I believe that is a fair question at this juncture of the season, especially in light of his recent outbursts.

Regardless of how anyone feels about Giles, the absence of him robs the Astros of a valuable weapon in the bullpen. The four-seam and slider combination is undeniably effective when he is on top of his game. This is, of course, the key reason why the Astros traded for him before the 2016 season. Honestly, I still think he can be a valuable member of the bullpen. But the Astros may be wise to acquire another reliever, specifically dependable in all situations, for the rest of the season.

There are definitely some interesting names floating around the trade market. The Astros have been linked in some shape or fashion in the past to the following names: Zach Britton, Brad Hand, and Raisel Iglesias. Even Adam Conley of the Marlins has been mentioned as potential target. Unfortunately for the Astros, the Indians did acquire Hand, the Padres’ All-Star closer, Thursday morning, so that trade takes the likely best reliever off the trade market. And Hand would’ve been the best fit in my opinion. Options still exist for Houston, though.

If a stranger were to ask me who the Astros concentrate on going forward, Britton seems to be a likely candidate.

While a 3.68 ERA and 4.30 FIP isn’t great nor terrible, Britton has limited opposing offenses to zero runs and a .422 OPS over his last seven innings dating back to June 30th. That’s progress for a pitcher with his fair share of injury issues in the past calendar year. Add the fact that he is a left-hander, it seems like the Astros could be enticed to revisit the trade talks that derailed during the last trade deadline. And with Britton’s impending free agency following the current season, general manager Jeff Luhnow may be able to acquire the Orioles’ reliever for a lower price than one year ago.

At the same time, keep an eye on Iglesias and Conley. Both are still under team control for a while, so the price in terms of prospects will be a potential roadblock. But the right-handed Iglesias has experience as a closer, like Britton, while the left-handed Conley (2.88 ERA in 25 innings) has been effective in his first full season as a reliever. At this point, I would consider Britton and Conley to be the more likely targets than Iglesias as they are both left-handers. Even with Tony Sipp‘s resurgence (1.93 ERA in 23 1/3 innings), the Astros could use another left-hander. An acquisition for a left-hander could also free up Chris Devenski, who the Astros use on occasion against lefty hitters, in other situations.  But the progress, or lack thereof, from Giles in the coming week or two may push Houston’s front office one way or another.

Next: Astros: Is Forrest Whitley in the picture for 2018?

The Astros, for better or worse, have options if the organization wants to add to the bullpen. If the 2017 version Giles were still around, I am not sure Houston makes a move. After all, a new reliever is going to push somebody already on the roster to a lesser role. But the recent volatility surrounding Giles has likely made the bullpen the Astros top priority entering the trade deadline. If I may add something, the catcher position may be a close second, which is dependent on the team’s outlook on Brian McCann‘s recover. But I will leave that topic alone for another time.