Fans of the Houston Astros were getting decidedly impatient this offseason with regards to how the front office was treating the vacancies in their bullpen. With the expected losses of Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek in free agency, Houston's bullpen was looking awfully thin and many worried the Astros' perceived unwillingness to spend this offseason was going to mean that the bullpen was going to be a weakness all season long.
Then, the Astros blew everyone's minds and went out and signed Josh Hader.
Overnight, the narrative around the Astros changed. Instead of people wondering if this was the beginning of the end for the Astros' dynasty, folks were instead talking about how Dana Brown and the front office were going for it in 2024. Giving Hader such a rich deal (especially for a reliever) provided hope that the front office was not going to let this window of contention close without a fight.
Hader was easily the best reliever available in free agency, and signing him makes the back-end of the Astros' bullpen among the best in baseball when paired with Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu. However, fans shouldn't think that because Houston signed Hader that means the Astros' bullpen doesn't have some outstanding questions.
The Astros' bullpen has some depth questions even after signing Josh Hader
Based strictly on total production, signing Hader is a net positive for Houston. Even if you add up the fWAR last season from Neris, Maton and Stanek, they combined for 1.5 fWAR versus Hader's 1.7 by himself. Problem solved, right?
Well, that isn't how this works. Hader's contributions may have been more valuable, but he's only one man. In 2023, Hader threw 56.1 innings, right in line with his career norms since 2020, as he's been pretty strictly a one inning per appearance guy since then. As for the trio of Astros free agent relievers, they combined for around 185 innings and 194 appearances. Even if Hader is more open to pitching more than an inning at a time now that he has gotten paid, there's no way he can cover even half of the bullpen innings the Astros lost to free agency, and that doesn't even account for the innings loss from Kendall Graveman's season-ending injury.
All is not lost, but the Astros may have to get a bit lucky for things to work out. One of the bigger storylines regarding Houston's bullpen lately has been the impending addition of Forrest Whitley. Whitley was once one of the best starting pitching prospects in baseball, but injuries and inconsistency scuttled his development as a starter and he is widely expected to get a chance to win a spot in the Astros' bullpen in 2024. Given the quality of Whitley's stuff when he's right, he has a chance to become a really good reliever if his arsenal truly plays up in shorter stints.
If Whitley can settle into a bullpen role and especially if he can be relied upon as a multi-inning guy, that could be all the bullpen depth the Astros really need this coming season. Such a development would take the pressure off any other bullpen newcomers that Houston tries out in 2024 while providing stability in the middle innings. However, Whitley's injury history is scary here and if he falters or gets hurt again, Houston may find themselves with a great trio of relievers for the late innings while struggling to be able to cover the middle of games at all.