Could the Houston Astros still sign a closer after adding two new relievers?
Among their offseason needs, the Houston Astros needed to add to their bullpen, which was probably the most important item of business next to addressing the outfield vacancies. The outfield remains unsolved, but general manager James Click has now added two relievers via free agency in Ryne Stanek and Pedro Baez.
Many fans, myself included, hoped Click would bring in a new closer after Ryan Pressly frequently gave us all heartburn while handling the role in 2020. The top closer on the market, Liam Hendriks, agreed to a mammoth deal with the White Sox, so it’s better that the Astros didn’t fork over that kind of money. But there are still options out there such as Brad Hand and Alex Colome.
But now that they’ve added Stanek and Baez, how likely are the Astros to pursue a closer? Click’s game plan could be to keep Pressly as the ninth inning guy and load the team with middle relief and setup types, which would be cheaper and give the bullpen more depth. To get a sense of where things stand, let’s take a look at the current state of the roster and the payroll.
Stanek and Baez join a group consisting of Pressly, Joe Smith, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor and Brooks Raley. If healthy, Austin Pruitt is likely to make the team as a long reliever, and Josh James should serve as a reinforcement when he’s fully recovered from hip surgery. That’s eight players, plus a ninth when James returns, which is basically a full bullpen.
Eight relievers plus five starters makes for 13 pitchers. If MLB allows for a 26-man roster in 2021, that’s probably all the Astros will carry. If 28-man rosters will be the plan, the team would likely have one more spot. Either way, it doesn’t look like the team has a clear spot available for a new closer unless they bump someone like Pruitt.
Keep in mind I did not include the likes of Andre Scrubb, Bryan Abreu, Luis Garcia or Cionel Perez, so the Astros have additional depth that would already be relegated to the minor leagues. So while an upgrade at the closer position would be nice, it might not be the most effective use of the team’s resources given how deep they are at this point.
Baez isn’t coming particularly cheap, as he’ll earn $4.5 million in 2021 and $5.5 million in 2022 plus a $500K signing bonus. His 2022 salary could also increase by up to $1 million with incentives, and there’s a $7.5 million club option for 2023 with a $2 million buyout. He’s guaranteed $12.5 million, making his average salary for luxury tax purposes to be $6.25 million, per Spotrac.
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The Astros will likely want to stay under that luxury tax threshold, and based on the projected salaries of their arbitration-eligible players, they have about $28 million of payroll space left before they reach that cap. Assuming Jim Crane is even willing to let Click spend all of that, there may not be room for a bona fide closer.
There are still two open spots in the outfield, and though George Springer is certainly gone, the Astros still have options, both in free agency and the trade market. The team also still needs a backup catcher and will likely be looking for some extra rotation depth. That might also compromise the number of bullpen spots available.
I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of one more bullpen addition, but I also wouldn’t count on it. The Astros are rumored to have interest in veteran Joakim Soria, who’s coming off a nice year and has some closing experience, so they may not have closed the door completely. But I’d be surprised if they added someone like Hand or Trevor Rosenthal.
They haven’t addressed their other needs, and the outfield especially is an important one. With the solid bullpen depth they already have, combined with their limited remaining payroll space, I just don’t see Click handing out a contract to one of the few remaining free agent relievers who would be a clear upgrade over Pressly. So in other words, prepare for more heartburn.