The Houston Astros have internal reinforcements coming for their bullpen, but they might need more.
In spite of injuries to Framber Valdez, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Urquidy and Justin Verlander, the Houston Astros starting rotation has managed to hold its own so far this season. The same cannot be said for the bullpen, however, and the lack of impact relief pitching aside from closer Ryan Pressly was dramatically exposed this past weekend.
In an embarrassing three-game sweep in Arlington at the hands of the lowly Rangers, the longest outing by an Astros starting pitcher was Lance McCullers’ five innings on Saturday. That, combined with the fact that two of the three games went to extra innings, forced a thin bullpen to cover a lot of ground. Combine that with the offense going 5-for-34 with runners in scoring position and you have the ingredients for a rough series.
Many fans are frustrated with manager Dusty Baker for the moves he’s made, but it’s hard to cook a good meal when you have bad ingredients. Veterans Pedro Baez and Joe Smith were supposed to be the primary setup men, but Smith has a 5.93 ERA and Baez seems nowhere close to making his season debut due to COVID-19 and a shoulder issue.
Enoli Paredes has been hurt and has as many walks as outs recorded when he’s been on the mound. Blake Taylor has been hurt, Andre Scrubb has been hit hard, and Bryan Abreu has been wildly inconsistent. Even Ryne Stanek, who had a great start to the season, is having command issues now. Brooks Raley leads the team in appearances and has a 6.52 ERA.
In spite of all this, Astros GM James Click said on Sunday that while the bullpen is an area of concern, “it’s something that we will address with the players that we have.” In other words, don’t expect any trades for bullpen help, at least not anytime soon. With that in mind, here’s a look at what internal reinforcements we might see.
Clean Bills of Health
The current hope is that Valdez, Urquidy and Odorizzi will all return by mid-June. In that scenario, Cristian Javier would move to the bullpen, giving that unit a much-needed boost. Luis Garcia could also end up in the bullpen, or he could be sent to Sugar Land to remain stretched out as a starter. Either way, a full and healthy rotation would lessen the burden on the bullpen.
Taylor and Josh James could return sometime in June as well, though of course the question with both of them will be their effectiveness. Taylor was hit hard prior to hitting the Injured List, and James has always struggled with command. There’s no word on a timetable for Baez to return, so we probably can’t count on anything from him at this point.
Maybe someone like Peter Solomon or Tyler Ivey turns into an effective reliever, or maybe Austin Pruitt returns and is effective, but aside from that, the Astros simply have to hope that their existing players such as Smith, Paredes and Taylor can round back into form for the stretch run. If that happens, Baker could patch something together. But quite a few things may have to fall into place for this bullpen to improve with only its internal options.
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The Astros could very well be in the trade market in advance of the July 31 trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean a deal is going to happen. It seems like they’re intending to stay under the $210 million luxury tax threshold, and the Odorizzi contract has put them right up against it. Click may not be in a position to take on any salary, which would severely limit their options.
Perhaps if they give up a better prospect, they could convince a team to take on Smith’s remaining contract in order to balance out the books, but that may not be likely. Click may not be the type to part with a decent prospect simply for a relief arm. Unless something changes, he might have to get creative to make a worthwhile addition to this bullpen.
For the time being, Astros fans are going to have to be patient. Baker and Click still have two months to figure this out in advance of the trade deadline, so they will certainly do everything they can to put together a solid group with the arms they already have. There is help on the way, but at this point we just don’t know how much help it will be.