We're almost here. The 2011 season is growing closer and we're going to head into spring training having exhausted almost every possible topic of conversation about the 2010 Astros. So, why not start talking about the 2011 team?
One of the things that popped into my head as I thought about the upcoming season is what would happen if Brandon Lyon gets injured. Now that the Astros have traded away Matt Lindstrom, who might get a shot to close?
Here are the possible candidates:
Wilton Lopez, RHP - The 7th inning guy from 2010, Lopez has already proven he has Brad Mills' trust. What he hasn't shown is if he has the stuff to be in the back of the bullpen. I don't really buy that; closers come in many shapes and sizes. Some may be able to get by on a heavy fastball like Lopez does. How he responds to moving back two innings is a bigger issue. Still, he's probably got the best shot of the guys on this list.
Jeff Fulchino, RHP - Fulchino is a little more tricky a case. He's performed well in the past, but he didn't show much last season for the new manager. Plus, he's coming off exploratory elbow surgery. I'm not suggesting he's going to be affected by the elbow clean-out, but if I'm putting odds on it, I'd have to downgrade him because of those injury concerns. Fulchino has a decent strikeout rate, but also has problems with walks, which would hurt him as a clos
Mark Melancon, RHP - When he came over from the Yankees, every scouting report mentioned that Melancon has "closer stuff" but just hasn't put it together in the big leagues. In limited work last season, he did show some ability in high leverage situations, striking out 10 in 30 high levereage plate appearances. With his small number of innings in the big leagues, Melancon probably wouldn't be named the closer outright, but would likely be part of a "closer committee." He'd probably do a pretty good job of it, too.
Aneury Rodriguez, RHP - Now we start getting creative. Like Lopez, Rodriguez is not a typical closer candidate because he doesn't have overpowering stuff. However, he does a good job of missing bats. His control isn't great, but he's mainly worked out of rotation in his minor league career. As a Rule 5 guy, the Astros will definitely try to keep him on the roster if they can. Does that mean transitioning him to the bullpen before giving him a shot at the closer role? I'd say the chances of that are pretty slim.
Henry Villar, RHP - Another enigma wrapped in a riddle, Villar has had solid strikeout numbers in the minors, but saw those drop off as he rose through the ranks. The conventional wisdom is that reduction means he relies more on control than on raw stuff. I'm not sure that I'm completely on-board with that, since there have been pretty good reports on his fastball velocity in the past. There seems to be an assumption from the local writers that he'll make the bullpen. If he does, and if he finds some more dominant stuff in the 'pen, he could grab the closer's job in a vacuum.
David Carpenter, RHP - The third player on this list who was acquired in the past year, Carpenter shares a similar profile to Melancon. He's been tabbed as a future closer in the minors because of his tool set, but hasn't done it enough in the majors to be sure. For Carpenter to get a shot at this job would mean the longest of long odds hit. First, he'd have to make the big league roster out of spring training. Then, he'd have to prove to Mills he can pitch in tough situations. Lastly, he'd have to beat out some of the other, more experienced pitchers on this list to get a chance to close. I guess there's a chance of this, but it's not a very good one.
Bud Norris, RHP - You were expecting him to be here, weren't you? I'm not advocating for Norris to take over the closer's role, nor am I saying he's not cut out to be a starting pitcher. I've had my reservations based on the number of pitches he throws, but he's shown enough in the past year and a half that I think he needs to be given every chance to be a starter first. But, if Lyon goes down in June or July and Norris has continued to struggle to get through five or six innings per start, I could definitely see the Astros pulling an Octavio Dotel on him and moving him to the closer's role without any time in the bullpen. The odds are pretty long of all that happening, but I also think he's got the fourth-best odds on this list of inheriting the role.
So, what do you think? Did I leave anyone out? Was I too harsh on anyone? Do you think Norris can/will close?