Previewing the state of the Astros bullpen ahead of Opening Day

The Astros' back of the bullpen is secure. Who is going to fill the middle innings?

Houston Astros Workout
Houston Astros Workout / Rich Storry/GettyImages

The Astros have the best back end of the bullpen in MLB. Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Josh Hader are as lights out as they come. If the Astros have the lead after six innings, the game is effectively over.

But what happens if one of those three is down? Who steps in if one has thrown on back-to-back days or three of four? If a starter runs into trouble early, who throws the fifth and sixth?

Landing Hader was a slam dunk, but the Astros still have 200 innings to replace with the losses of Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek, and Phil Maton. Dylan Coleman was expected to fill the void, but an inability to throw strikes resulted in Coleman being optioned. Forrest Whitley seemed a lock to make the Opening Day roster, but after yet another injury, Whitley will begin the year in Triple-A.

With so many innings to replace, let's take a look at the state of the Astros bullpen.

Previewing the state of the Astros bullpen ahead of Opening Day

Rafael Montero is a lock to make the Opening Day roster. Montero signed a massive extension after a dominant 2022 season, but struggled mightily in 2023, posting a 5.08 ERA. He was better in the second half, but his spring training outings so far have left much to be desired. In Montero's first 4.2 innings, he has allowed five earned runs and posted a 2.79 WHIP.

It's hard to be confident in Montero, but with Houston having committed $11.5 million to the reliever, his place is safe...for now.

Bennett Sousa was lights out down the stretch for Houston, but was ineligible for the Astros bullpen. Sousa would have made it onto the October roster had he been eligible, but his performance down the stretch indicated a much bigger role in 2024.

Sousa has thrown eight innings this spring, allowing 10 hits and walking six. He got off to a slow start, but has rebounded to record a 3.38 ERA. Sousa gives the Astros another lefty to pair with Hader, and appears to be a hidden gem the Astros uncovered on the waiver wire.

Both Ronel Blanco and Brandon Bielak will make the Opening Day roster. Blanco and Bielak both have experience as a starter and reliever, and provide Houston some much-needed length to buoy a depleted rotation.

With both Justin Verlander and Jose Urquidy unavailable for Opening Day, Blanco and Bielak can eat much needed innings, be it as a starter or a long reliever. Blanco has looked great this spring, throwing 15.2 scoreless innings and striking out 18. Dana Brown has been bullish on Blanco as a starter for over a year now.

Bielak hasn't been as sharp, allowing a 5.56 ERA, but Houston needs stretched out arms, and Bielak is out of options.

Seth Martinez has shown flashes of greatness in his career, but has been up and down. In 2022, Martinez posted a 2.09 ERA over 29 appearances, but posted a 5.23 mark in 2023. He has his struggles against lefties, but in his career holds righties to a .190 average and .574 OPS. Martinez is also able to provide multiple innings out of the pen.

The final bullpen spot likely belongs to Tayler Scott, who was signed to a minor-league option this December. Scott is not yet on the 40-man roster, but with Oliver Ortega out for three-to-four months, Scott's strong performance this spring gives him the edge.

The career journeyman has 46 career innings over his career, but has looked great this spring, posting a 1.69 ERA and 0.66 WHIP over 10.2 innings.

Joe Espada had this to say of Scott:

"He’s continues to be in the mix. He threw the ball really well again. I like his stuff. It plays against both righties and lefties, and he’s going to continue to get chances."

Joe Espada

Sousa, Scott, Blanco, Bielak, and Martinez are far from the proven names Houston has had in their bullpen in years past, but all have shown flashes of what they can do at their best. If the Astros have a weakness this year, it's their middle innings.

The Astros will rely mightily on some unproven arms to hold down the fort early in 2024.