Joe Smith has yet to report to camp, which leaves a hole in the Houston Astros bullpen.
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to create a number of roster holes for teams this season, either temporarily or for the duration of the campaign. One roster hole the Houston Astros could be facing is the loss of reliever Joe Smith, who has yet to report to camp.
As of Friday, manager Dusty Baker said he had no new updates on Smith, who hasn’t shown up to camp due to concerns about his family’s health and safety. It sounds like he’s mulling whether to participate this season, as Baker previously said he wasn’t sure if Smith would play.
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With that being the case, the Astros are going to have to proceed as if he won’t play, unless and until Smith reports to camp. This is going to leave a big hole in the bullpen, as he was set to take on an important role after the team lost Will Harris to free agency in the offseason.
Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna are set to handle the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, but Smith was likely to get some key outs in the seventh. That trio at the back of the bullpen was going to rival some of the other late-inning trios the Astros have employed, such as the Brad Lidge – Octavio Dotel – Billy Wagner combo in 2003, the Chad Qualls – Dan Wheeler – Lidge grouping shortly after that, and the more recent combo of Harris, Pressly and Osuna.
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The 36-year-old Smith is MLB’s active leader in appearances, having pitched in 782 games in his 13-year career with a 2.98 ERA. After missing the first half of 2019 recovering from an Achilles injury, he came back to make 28 appearances and compile a 1.80 ERA, earning some high leverage innings in the postseason. That’ll be a big hole to fill.
How the Astros Move Forward
The Astros have a couple of veterans in Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock who’ll be looking to rebound in 2020. Devenski, of course, was stellar in 2016 and 2017 but really struggled the past two seasons. Peacock’s second half of 2019 was marred by injuries, so a return to form from either of them would help Baker out quite a bit.
Beyond those two, the best hope is 23-year-old Bryan Abreu, who has less than nine major league innings to his name. But he gave up just one run in those seven appearances last season with excellent peripherals, so the potential is certainly there, though it remains to be seen if the team will give him a shot at a rotation job with Josh James and Jose Urquidy still absent.
After that, it’s slim pickings. Perhaps Joe Biagini can rebound from his awful 2019 second half, or maybe rookie left-hander Blake Taylor steps up to get some key outs. In an ideal world, maybe top prospect Forrest Whitley could get called up during the season as a multi-inning relief weapon. But asking any rookie to take Smith’s place carries some inherent risk.
It’s also possible Smith reports soon and the issue becomes moot. But if he doesn’t, the Astros don’t seem to have many candidates to fill his shoes. In a season where every team’s depth is going to be tested, Houston can ill afford to lose too many of its best bullpen arms.