The Houston Astros are looking more complete as the offseason continues, but the future closer is an unknown. This is a projection for their bullpen.
The Houston Astros have seemed to go quiet in talks with bullpen arms, and as we are inching closer to pitcher and catchers reporting, the possibility of having an unexperienced closer heading to the mound in the ninth inning is a possibility. With the 40-man roster being full, the Astros could be set for their 2021 campaign. While the centerfield job along with rotation depth are still up in the air, the Astros bullpen might be ready to be projected. The bullpen will vary based on injury, performance, and need throughout the season, but these are my locks come April.
Here is my projection for the 2021 Astros bullpen in no specific order:
The first thing to dissect is the amount of roster spots the bullpen will hold. My projection for the rest of the 26-man roster is five starting pitchers, two catchers, six infielders, and five outfielders (this includes Yordan Alvarez). The final eight spots will hold relief pitchers.
RHP Pedro Báez
The Astros signed Báez on Jan. 15, and while being one of the slowest relief pitchers in the history of baseball, he will soon make an impact in a setup role. The right-hander spent all of his seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and while not being their preferred closer, they tested him in the ninth inning in 2020 (2/2 in save situations). The Dominican native appeared in 17 innings in 18 games for the Dodgers, while posting a 3.18 ERA, he fanned 13 batters. He hasn’t been a strong strikeout pitcher in his tenure, and his role will come in short situations to close an inning. Báez is signed through 2022 and has a team option for 2023.
RHP Enoli Paredes
Paredes has hit this offseason as a fan favorite and possible option for the closing role. While entering his second year in the league, the right-hander switched his number from 60 to 48 last month. Paredes did struggle as he adapted to the big-league level, but come September and October, he was looking more comfortable on the mound. His long, lengthy approach to the mound comes with speed and movement behind his pitches. Paredes posted a 3.05 ERA through 20.2 innings with 20 strikeouts. While his main role was to get the Astros out of jams in 2020, he could possibly see time in the ninth inning, but the experience isn’t all the way there for the right-hander. Paredes will be a faster paced Báez this upcoming season with a chance to close some games.
RHP Ryan Pressly
As the second longest tenured Astro in the bullpen behind Joe Smith, Pressly has the best case to be the closer for Houston in 2021. The right-hander was traded to the Astros for two minor league players in 2018 before the trade deadline, and since then, he has been an All-Star reliever. Pressly took over the starting role after Roberto Osuna fell to season ending surgery early in the year. Through 21 innings pitched, the right-hander saved 12 games (career high) along with 29 strikeouts, which is what the Astros need in the backend of their bullpen. He doesn’t have all the experience to be an elite closer, as his longtime role was in the eighth inning, but he proved he could last year. While regressing to an ERA of 3.43 from 2.32 the year before, Pressly like many other players struggled to find a groove through the 60-game season. As of right now, Pressly should be the closer.
LHP Brooks Raley
Raley has had an interesting journey to a pivotal role for the Astros. While spending time in the KBO after a short MLB career in 2011-2012, the left-hander found his way to Cincinnati in 2020, before being traded to the Astros. He did not post the numbers of an elite arm, but a 3.94 ERA will do. Raley struck out 21 of the 62 batters he faced, but home runs seem to be his weakness. Three of the eight hits he gave up in 2020 were to the long ball, but walks aren’t the issue like they were in the past. As long as Raley can keep pitches out of the top half of the zone, he will see success early in games. Raley’s role will most likely be in early relief, but as a former starter, we can only hope he can provide more than one inning in an appearance.
RHP Andre Scrubb
Scrubb was one of the many rookies to hit the bullpen in 2020, and as a strong right-hander, he likes to work the count. The former Dodgers prospect was traded for Tyler White in 2019, and a year later, the 26-year-old would make his way to the majors. Scrubb has been stressful to watch as he comes in close games and pitches around hitters, but through 23.2 innings, the right-hander posted a 1.90 ERA with 24 strikeouts. The only aspect of Scrubb’s game he will need to work on is not giving up walks. He walked 20 batters last season, and these free bases ended up in only 5 total earned runs. If Scrubb can come to control his pitches, he has All-Star potential, and if pitching coach Brent Strom can help tone this issue, the Astros will have an effective future in Scrubb.
RHP Joe Smith
Smith missed all of the 2020 season due to an opt-out. The pandemic was another worry on his personal list, as his mother passed away early in the season. The right-hander sought a comeback, but after further examination, he didn’t see enough time to help the team come October. Smith is the longest tenured Astro reliever along with the longest tenured reliever on staff. The right-hander comes with an unorthodox delivery, and as a sidewinder, Smith is looking to have the same impact as he had in 2019. His ERA stood at 1.80 through 25 innings with 22 strikeouts. Smith will definitely see time early in relief, but long outings are not something we could expect.
RHP Ryne Stanek
The Astros signed Stanek in early January, and while having ties to GM James Click in Tampa Bay, the right-hander adds depth and experience to a youthful pen. The former Miami Marlin has had his struggles, and more recently in 2020, he posted a 7.20 ERA through 10 innings pitched. He will have a lot of work to do in two weeks when pitchers and catcher are expected to report. Stanek can hit triple digits in his fastball, but a lack of a strong secondary arsenal is what holds him back. In the new era of baseball, Stanek could prove to be an effective opener.
LHP Blake Taylor
The Astros traded Jake Marisnick for Taylor and a minor league prospect back in Dec. of 2019. Since then, the left-hander had an impactful first season at the big league level. Through 20.2 innings, he had a 2.18 ERA with 17 strikeouts. In the dying age of a lefty specialist, Taylor will most likely see action in the eighth inning along with time as the closer. The Astros tried him out during the 2020 season as many players were dropping to injuries. Taylor comes with a heavy breaking pitch, and while looking for a mirrored ’20 season in 2021, he will need to stay healthy and work on quick outs.
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As the Houston Astros pitching staff matures, it will include two new experienced faces this spring. While the left-handed arms are the same as 2020, Raley and Taylor had their stretches of dominance. Austin Pruitt and Josh James are two right-handers that will compete for roster spots once they are fully recovered from their respected injuries. Other pitchers, who could possibly see stints in the bullpen, are prospects Tyler Ivey, Bryan Abreu, and Luis Garcia, along with Brandon Bielak and Nivaldo Rodriguez.
There are closers still on the market, Joakim Soria, Alex Colome, and Trevor Rosenthal, who have been linked to the Astros, but as the offseason is coming to a close, we might not see the Astros invest in a ninth inning arm. Click has spoken on this in recent weeks.