"Hold The Phones!": With Season Approaching, Astros Bullpen Offers Plenty Of Cause For Concern

By Connor Nielen

As another round of Spring Training nears its conclusion, the Houston Astros are now just days away from hosting the Colorado Rockies to open up their 2012 campaign – which of course will serve as the final one as a member of baseball’s National League. While the organization inches further and further toward seeing Wandy Rodriguez (tabbed to make the Opening Day start) tow the rubber in said matchup, much of the team’s fan-base is awaiting his first pitch, thus marking the beginning of a season anew, with a steady amount of cautious optimism.

Despite the prospect of a clearly-defined ‘rebuilding season’ on the horizon, there are several reasons for immediate collective excitement. Among the bright spots is a hard-working young outfield trio that includes an emerging middle-of-the-order talent in J.D. Martinez (who I simply cannot help but emit praise over), an illuminatingly fresh upper-management / ownership regime, a healthy Jason Castro behind the dish, and the formation of a slick double-play duo of Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie – neither of whom were on last year’s initial roster.

Unfortunately, while there is significant intrigue surrounding many components, there appears to be a red-headed step-child associated with this Astros ball-club: its bullpen. Readers be forewarned, things are about to get ugly and they are going to get ugly in a hurry.

Here’s a condensed summary of what has taken place since the season ended in September: Houston dealt its closer, Mark Melancon, to the Boston Red Sox, and then decided to replace him by having Brett Myers attempt to make the transition from starting pitcher to 9th-inning shutdown guy – because any time you can have a short-tempered veteran with rapidly diminishing skills try and lock down wins for you, you have to do it.

Those moves were followed up by “welcoming back” Brandon Lyon from his slew of shoulder injuries (if you have followed this team even remotely over recent years, you know that this is not a positive), and then finding out that arguably its most effective pitcher from 2011, Sergio Escalona (undoubtedly the best left-handed reliever on the roster), would be lost for the entire season after it was determined that he would require Tommy John surgery.

For the record, I am pretty sure Myers’s contract will be moved to a contender at the trade deadline, in which case it does kind of make sense to shove him into the bullpen – for a couple of reasons, actually:

  • It should make trying to trade him less of a headache, as it is quite a bit easier to find suitors for a reliever come July than it is a back-end of the rotation guy. Bubble teams are always looking to bolster their bullpens, and they are more willing to pay a premium to do so. That is not always the case when it comes to starting pitching, especially for an arm of 31-year old Brett Myers’ caliber.
  • If Myers is not going to fit into the long-term plans of this team anyways, then why have him waste a rotation spot that could be more appropriately filled by offering some much-needed experience to an up-and-comer determined to show that he is capable of performing at the major-league level?

In terms of Fantasy Baseball purposes, I feel as if Myers could actually be a bit of a sneaky-good option to provide a decent number of saves this year – and he can likely be had for relatively cheap in drafts, on waiver wires, etc. While many of those saves may often come in gut-wrenching fashion, the fact that such little competition exists to deter his job security is especially enticing. The only concern with regard to risk of losing his closing gig would be in the event that he is indeed involved in a mid-season trade. Probably worth a flier.

The same cannot be said of Lyon, who was downright terrible at every turn last year (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on). I just do not see any possible benefit that can come from his return to the Houston bullpen.

As for some speculation around the rest of the ‘pen, perhaps Escalona’s IR stint could spark a Wesley Wright resurgence, becoming a lefty specialist for Brad Mills to rely on as the season goes on. Wright has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but he also found himself mired in minor-league obscurity for the past couple of seasons. It will be interesting to see if the Alabama-native can in fact successfully revive his career.

Thankfully, ol’ reliable Wilton Lopez remains the set-up man, meaning there will at least be some stability in Houston’s relief corps. Rule-5 draft pick Rhiner Cruz was thought to be a candidate to close before the Myers announcement came. I know very little about and have seen very little of Cruz, but he reportedly possesses an electric repertoire which could have him become a pleasant surprise for the ‘Stros.

I already said this when it happened, but I do think that the trade of Melancon is justifiable, especially if Jed Lowrie develops into a formidable starting shortstop (a pressing need for this franchise going forward). Kyle Weiland was also acquired in that deal and is now battling for a spot in the rotation after some sharp Spring performances.

In principle, the Boston deal itself is a fine one. It does seem like more should have been done throughout the Winter to at least try and retool the late-inning pitching cast, though. On the other hand, would it have really been any better to bring in another one of new G.M. Jeff Luhnow’s reclamation projects (which are seemingly being scrapped on a daily basis with Jack Cust and Livan Hernandez having both just been released) to try and sweep the bullpen issues under the rug?

Last week’s trade of Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero to the Kansas City Royals (the expected move to resolve the previously acknowledged outfield logjam) saw Houston pick up a young flamethrower by the name of Kevin Chapman. Whether he is seasoned enough to contribute this year remains to be however, but the safe money would be on that being unlikely.

The remaining arms competing for bullpen spots in Houston are a real mixed-bag of parts that may or may not fit eventual needs – the likes of Fernando Rodriguez, David Carpenter, Juan Abreu, Fernando Abad, Aneury Rodriguez, and so on. Not a spectacular bunch by any means, but just maybe a hidden gem will be uncovered in time (similar to what happened with Escalona pre-injury).

And like that, the Houston Astros are ready to open the season, the first step in bidding farewell to life in the N.L. Central – a division which lost two of its most prominent hitters, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, to free agency. Will those moves cause a shift in the balance of power? My prediction is that a ferocious fight to the finish between the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers will occur to determine 2012 division supremacy.

University final exams will make it difficult to provide any extensive Astros pieces in April, but as always – follow me on Twitter @ConnorNielen – and I will return to regular Houston baseball coverage in May. Thanks for reading!

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