The Astros and GM Ed Wade were handed a great piece of news on Monday night, as closer Jose Valverde declined arbitration choosing instead to remain a free agent. Valverde made his intent to test the market in free agency known early on, and despite the extension of an arbitration offer from the Astros, Jose has decided to take the plunge and see if he can parlay his strong recent seasons into a big money free agent contract.
Almost certainly this means the end of his tenure as the last man out the Astros 'pen. While he was certainly a positive contributor, he is a luxury that the organization cannot afford. If nothing else, we can remember Jose Valverde's as a rock of consistent, if not spectacular play, a welcome relief from the often turbulent ninths we saw from Brad Lidge. People jump all over Ed Wade and his penchant for bringing in relievers, often over cost, and rightfully so especially with a team lacking in talent like our Astros have been. At least we can say in Valverde's case that the big name reliever was as good as advertised once he got to town.
Now the question that need be answered is who will step into the vacated closer's position? Rafael Soriano, whom the Astros had reported shown interest in, has accepted the Braves' offer of arbitration, while set up man Mike Gonzalez has chosen to take the opposite route in rejecting the Braves' advances. On the Braves' front, the back end of their bullpen will be full of former and current closers, with Soriano joining Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner after the latter two recently joined Atlanta in free agency. I don't know if Braves' GM Frank Wren anticipated that Soriano would decline arbitration, but he will have a large sum of $ invested in three men who will pitch at most 190 innings combined. That's an almost Astro-like utilization of resources. To the point, Gonzalez will be an option for Ed Wade to check in on. A multi year deal would most likely be what it takes to reign in the man with the awesome windup.
Of course, LaTroy Hawkins is an option, but he has been sought after by more than just the Astros. If anything, I would expect Ed Wade to amp up his charge to sign Hawk to a one year contract for 2010. If I had to place a wager, I believe he will be re-signed and given the opportunity to be our closer. Without great strikeout stuff, Hawkins will have to overcome his lack of a killer fastball to get hitters out. Our budget may necessitate this more than anything else.
Kevin Gregg, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney are out there, and I hope the Astros do nothing more than kick their tires and pass. J.J. Putz, however, would be an interesting sign, and could probably be had on the cheap after coming off injury and poor performance.
The Astros were given a gift last night. Who knows what can be done with it. A free agent starting pitcher and/or an affordable third base option are more realistic than last week, in terms of ability of the Astros to sign a player or two. In the long term, Bobby Heck has produced a solid draft class from 2009, and if Valverde as expected does not re-sign with the club, two draft choices will come his way. All in all, a good night for the Astros. The next couple days could be even better as a result.