Astros’ relief: The good, the bad and the bullpen


Where’s Sergio Leone when you need him? Can he get out left-handed hitters?

Despite a fistful of dollars, the Astros’ bullpen again posted the worst ERA in the majors. The 4.80 of 2014 might have been bad, but — shockingly — it was better than the 2013 version’s 4.92. A similar improvement might just turn Houston’s “ugly” bullpen into one that’s merely “bad.”

Good seems out of the question, unless Luhnow spends a few dollars more out of that $20 million Crane will allegedly pony up for 2015. The trick, of course, will be to spend that money wisely instead of burying it in a grave … or in Jesse Crain‘s bank account.

The Good

Out of 20 relievers, Houston had only a fistful pitched better than the team average ERA in 2014: Matt Albers (10.0 IP, 0.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 8/3 K/BB), Jose Veras (32.2 IP, 3.03 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 37/16 K/BB), Chad Qualls (51.1 IP, 3.33 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 43/5 K/BB), Tony Sipp (50.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 63/17 K/BB) Jake Buchanan (26.0 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 17/9 K/BB), Josh Fields (54.2 IP, 4.45 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 70/17 K/BB), and surprisingly Kevin Chapman (21.1 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 19/11 K/BB).

Calling this group “good” is a bit relative. Chapman had a horrible WHIP. Albers pitched two weeks then disappeared. Veras spent half the season stinking for another team. And Qualls seemed to be on Oakland’s payroll every time we played them.

The Bad

The next seven were mostly bad. Some were sometimes good. In this set, Jorge De Leon, David Martinez and Sam Deduno pitched with small enough sample sizes — less than 10 innings in Houston — they aren’t worth mentioning. That leaves Mike Foltynewicz (18.2 IP, 5.30 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, 14/7 K/BB) who pitched well on several occasions especially as the season was winding down, Darin Downs (34.2 IP, 5.45 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 27/19 K/BB), Paul Clemens (24.2 IP, 5.84 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 16/13 K/BB) and Jerome Williams (47.2 IP, 6.04 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 38/16 K/BB).

And The Ugly

From Kyle Farnsworth‘s 1.97 WHIP to Brad Peacock‘s status as a starter, and Jose Cisnero‘s and Raul Valdes‘ horrible performances and limited innings, the six remaining relievers really just amounted to Anthony Bass (27.0 IP, 6.33 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7/7 K/BB) and Josh Zeid (20.2 IP, 6.97 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, 18/7 K/BB).

For a Fistful of Dollars

Almost certainly, the Astros will bring back Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp, Josh Fields and Mike Foltynewicz. If Veras and/or Buchanan return, well, those guys are all part of the reason Houston’s second-half ERA for relievers was about half a run lower.

For a Few Dollars More

Houston could fill its final spot or two with the likes of Pat Nesheck and Andrew Miller if they are not re-signed. My guess is this will be a position Luhnow tries to fill with a trade. Or someone like Tommy Shirley from AAA could make the jump, though what Houston needs is a real closer since they have a bunch of returning setup men, seventh inning guys and long relievers.

But by simply avoiding the Farnsworths and Jerome Williamses of the world, this bullpen could easily be better than in 2014.

Questions to Consider

  • Should the Astros try to re-sign Jose Veras? If so, is he their closer?
  • What about Jesse Crain or, despite buying him out, Matt Albers?
  • There were a lot of blown saves in 2014, but only six of them belonged to Qualls, who saved 19 games. Should Qualls be the closer … except against Oakland?
  • Predicting a trade or a free agent signing with so many variables is a veritable shot in the dark. Still, any favorites for the Astros to shoot at?
  • And finally, Sergio Leone made some great westerns. What is your favorite western?
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35 comments on “Astros’ relief: The good, the bad and the bullpen

  1. Brian, it is not that we don’t have any ideas or thoughts on your post. It is just that we are so danged depressed by the subject. And most of us have forgotten what a ‘relief’ pitcher is. Other than Tony Sipp’s amazing run of scoreless innings, all our guys just gave us a ‘plop’ ‘plop’ ‘fizz’ ‘fizz’ sound and fury, but signifying nothing.

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    • I think you just need to watch these teams in the playoffs (well, maybe not Detroit) to see what a “relief” pitcher is.

      Sipp was mostly marvelous, but so was Qualls. I think three of his blown saves came against Oakland. That means outside the A’s, he had three blown saves.

      Still, I see Qualls as your eighth inning guy. Sipp as the lefty. Fields is maybe for the seventh. That’s not a bad bullpen when the Astros find real closer. Put in Buchanan as the long reliever/spot starter.

      But where do we find that closer?

      If Albers had been healthy and Crain had gotten healthy, the Astros would have had … I know, we’ve said it a million times. But it’s true. Still, not having great depth hurt. And that’s what led, once again, to the worst bullpen in the majors.

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      • There was no guarantee Crain could be a closer. Didn’t he enter 2014 trailing Qualls in career saves 5 to 6? I’m not ready to say a Papelbon improves our closer spot more than Crain would have, but if we want to use past results to predict future success…

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  2. Good write-up. IMO the bullpen is less about the arms in it and more about how they are used. The Astros had a myriad of bad luck with injuries, conistently shifting roles, and pitching from the bullpen is a very different and difficult proposition to begin with.

    Having great arms helps – who can forget that magical bullpen season of Lidge-Dotel-Wagner? Sometimes though you can get the best from the bottom just by making things predictable for them – they know what niche they are filling, they get a feel for when and how often they will be used, they know, understand, and prepare for those specific situations. If a lefty specialist knows that his job is to get Josh Hamilton out in a crucial spot, the man is going to know more about Hamilton’s tendencies than Hamilton himself – that’s just a small example of what defined roles can do. It seemed at times Porter didn’t care about matching up, and he would just pull a name out of the hat. If you are up 5-2 in the 6th, and the starter has hit 100 pitches, there are a one or two guys who know its their job to get it to the closer, like wise if a starter gets knocked out in the 3rd, there is a guy who knows and is prepared to walk out there and take the ball and give you 4. It just didn’t seem like the bullpen was always prepared for most situations.

    I’m not completely blaming Porter (or Strom), they were given some lackluster pitchers, but plenty of managers are given lackluster pitchers. Can any of you even name 3 guys in Seattles bullpen – and be fair – do it without looking it up. We are now on year 2 of horrible pen usage – I for one hope the problem was Porter and Hinch is better at it.

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  3. I think there is a core group there. Maybe target K-rod or Romo, Albers and Crane on minor league deals, and re-sign Veras. That creates some quality depth.

    But I agree with Steven. Settle on the roles and roll with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not saying right or wrong, but Brad Ausmus is getting positively grilled in Detroit for sticking with Joba Chamberlain in the 8th and Joe Nathan in the 9th through thick and thin in spite of having guys on the bench who were having better years in 2014. Kansas City had great success with fixed bullpen roles, Baltimore flexed totally and Buck Showalter was considered a magician.

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  4. For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will both be pulled from Netflix streaming on Nov. 1st. I don’t see anything about the first movie in the trilogy, AFistfull of Dollars, but I can’t confirm whether it is available right now, either.

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  5. Re-sign Jose Veras? Yes – Closer? No
    I would only take Crain if it was a minor league deal or a major league minimum and doubt that will do it. Would be interested in Albers at $1 to 1.5 million
    – Qualls did a solid job as a closer and would have been great except for his Oakland problem. But I would rather see him in the 7th or 8th inning next season
    – Anybody think that Jason Motte can find the magic he had before his injury and sitting out all of 2013? He was excellent in 2010 – 2012 with ERAs ranging from 2.24 to 2.75 and WHIP from .917 to 1.127. Or would Minute Maid balk at us adding a pitcher named Motte?
    – Favorite movie – High Noon and the morality play showing Gary Cooper overcoming being thrown under the bus by his friends (in a McCarthy era morality play). Of course Cooper was almost 30 years older than Princess Grace – but hey he was Coop.
    Of course today they would have to have High Noon II and have them fighting off other criminals from his past as they are surrounded in their new Quaker farm house….

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  6. 1) yes, and maybe
    2)Absolutely not to Crain. He can go get a NRI for someone else and milk another ‘injury’ .
    3) No. Last year was a career year, and his injury history is going to come back
    4)I’ll respond to that when I’m at home rather than on my phone
    5)i don’t care for Westerns at all…only ones i liked was Unforgiven and Tombstone (the latter actually being one of my ten favorite films)

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  7. My answers to my own questions:

    1. I’d re-sign Veras, but I don’t think he’s closer material. Still, he’d be a valuable bullpen piece.
    2. No thanks on Crain unless it was an NRI. Like Dan said, I might sign Albers for about $1.5 million, but I’d put him on a diet.
    3. I think if you don’t have that one shut-down guy, closer by committee can work. If Houston can’t get that one definite stopper, I think Qualls can be part of the committee. Otherwise, he’s 7th and 8th inning depending on the situation.
    4. The free agents available don’t overly impress me, so whoever Houston gets as that closer should come via trade. I’m not sure who to suggest, but I’d be looking for another team’s 8th inning guy who is looking for a raise. Then I’d trade for him and give him that raise. If he falters a bit, we’ve still got Qualls and Fields who can close from time to time.
    5. I’m not a huge Western fan. My buddy Tim, godfather to my youngest and a Cardinals fan (no one is perfect), would give a list as long as his mustache. That said, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Rio Bravo, Quigley Down Under (yes, I am ashamed), Firefly (there’s horses and cows along with those space ships), and, of course, Blazing Saddles.

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    • Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a tremendous movie at a lot of levels – especially what it says about human nature. One correction – Serenity was the movie / continuation of Firefly the series (if you can call one season a series). Fox sure screwed that up cancelling after one season – crazy they forced them to make a movie to tie up loose ends more or less.

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      • I never said the western HAD to be a movie. And Serenity was less “western” than was Firefly. That said, the Reavers were definitely the Indians, space was the frontier, and the by-your-gun justice was definitely the frontier justice of the West.

        Oh, and Inara was Miss Kitty. But better.

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  8. Ok, new plan: trade for Madison Bumgarner. In seriousness, after his three World Series (2010, 2012, 2014) is there any pitcher with a higher value than him right now? If I’m the Giants, I find a way to give him an extra month of rest going into 2015. 270 innings in today’s game is crazy!

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    • So what is the over/under for Bumgarner having TJ surgery….
      The last time we saw something like this was the Roger Clemens relief stint in the 18 inning playoff game….

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      • Gregg Olson, the former ROY, was pretty mad at the Giants last night for pitching Bumgarner so long in Game 7. He, of course, understands why both the Giants and Bumgarner would risk the injury, but he said it just wasn’t worth it.

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  9. Seattle released Justin Smoak, and Toronto picked him up. Remember when it was between him and Castro as far as who was the better draft pick? That’s like arsenic v cyanide…he certainly never panned out.

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  10. Neshek is an interesting idea and the kind of pitcher the Astros could entice by offering him the closer position. He probably wouldn’t cost closer money either since he is a set-up man.

    I have no problem bringing back Veras, but definitely do not not to see him as the closer. He is better suited for the 7th inning.

    I didn’t watch Westerns as a kid, but loved Tombstone. Definitely one of my favorite movies.

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    • Neshek’s agent is said to be looking 3 year, up to 15 mil. More likely given his age and lack of innings at the big league level he is looking at 2 years, 10 mil. I would give it to him.

      On the flipside, he has had a very inconsistent time getting out lefties. Now last year he was great against them, but in 2013 he was awful (lefties hit .315 on him in 2013). His career has been flippy against them, with Oakland even one time designating him for assignment, despite overall good numbers, because he couldn’t get lefties out. Not sure you want a closer that another team can take advantage of if the other manager isn’t half asleep.

      I say sign him – since we should have the payroll for it – and let him compete for the closers role with whomever else we bring in. Neshek has only made 4.5M so far in his career, so he maybe looking more for the dollars than he is closers role. I expect the Cubs to be his bigger suitor – but I certainly think this is one guy Luhnow can be in on.

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      • If he can play in the outfield, just have him and Sipp take turns against hitters and manning left field. We can call it the “Bo Porter 2.0” move.

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  11. What is your favorite Western of all time? The 1963 classic McLintock, starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Stefanie Powers, Patrick Wayne, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Jerry VanDyke (among others) Some great lines [which of course were not at all politically correct]:

    1. [GW McLlintock speaking]: I haven’t lost my temper in forty years, but pilgrim you caused a lot of trouble this morning, might have got somebody killed… and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth. But I won’t . . . I won’t . . . The *hell* I won’t!
    [belts troublemaker in the mouth and knocks him down steep embankment into oozing mud]

    2. [GW speaking to newly hired hand]: “Boy, you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t give jobs – I hire men”, followed by “You won’t give me anything and I won’t give you anything. We both hold up our heads.”

    3. [Ching speaking]: “Pretty crummy fam’ry! Drinkee too muchee! Get in fight! Yell alla time! and a little later, when Drago jokingly threatens to cut off his pigtail: “Crummy fam’ry, crummy fam’ry!”

    4. [Becky McLintock to GW]: “You are my father and if you do love me you will shoot him”.

    5. [Running Buffalo speaking]: “Great party but no whiskey – we go home”

    6. [GW to Mrs. McLintock (Maureen O’Hara)]: “You women are always raising hell about one thing when it’s something else you’re really sore about. Don’t you think it’s about time you told me what put the burr under your saddle about me?”

    7. [Mrs. McLintock as the lights go out]: “310 times. Now that’s a record.”

    This movie was definitely released before political correctness.

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  12. agree with you on Mclintock Mr. Bill. have to throw in Big Jake as well.
    i would sign veras but as a 7th inning type guy not a closer.
    i would not sign Crain or Albers (fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me)
    right now Qualls is ur closer, i would want him as 8th inning guy who occaisonally closes when the real closer needs rest.
    dont know who they will target, but you can bet on some movement trade wise.
    How the West was Won is another pretty good western.

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  13. I expect Luhnow to do like every other GM for the Astros………look in the trash can to see if he can find some guy who USED to be good. I highly doubt that there are pitchers who will be lining up to come here. I love the Western movie’s you guys have been posting! Yeah…….there will NEVER be another John Wayne. PERIOD.
    BUT……….Tombstone was a daaaang good movie!!
    “Ate dirt, made ‘um think I was crazy”………”The Searchers”

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