March 17, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Bud Norris (20) in the dugout before he pitches against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Heading into the start of last season the Astros pitching (especially starting pitching) seemed to be an area of strength when compared to the clubs offensive deficiencies. The Astros staff as a group finished 15th in ERA with a 4.09 team ERA in 2010. The starting staff finished 9th with a 3.90 ERA, but the bullpen struggled to the tune of a 4.49 ERA, which was good for the 4th worst in the league. The 2011 season ended up being a different story though as both the starting rotation and the bullpen failed to improve on their 2010 mark. The Astros pitching staff ranked 28th out of the 30 teams in ERA last season with a team ERA of 4.51. The Astros starters finished 24th in the majors with a 4.52 ERA, while the relief pitchers barely beat out the Twins for the worst bullpen in the majors with a 4.49 ERA. The real question now is how will the pitchers perform this season?
Changes Made - Though three-fifths of the rotation remains intact it still features a different look than last seasons. Jeff Luhnow started shaking up the rotation this spring when the Astros announced that Brett Myers was going to make the transition from starter to closer. Luhnow identified Myers contract as a sunk cost and felt like he was more valuable to the team in the backend of the bullpen given the depth available for back of the rotation spots. Two of those options included Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell who won the final two spots in the rotation and were named to their first opening day roster. Gone are the Nelson Figueroa/Brian Moehler/Russ Ortiz types that used to fill out the rotation in favor of two guys who possess a little upside and could potentially help the club in the future.
1-2 Punch – Wandy and Bud look to form the backbone of the rotation and hope to bring consistency and durability to the rotation. Wandy had a bit of a down year when compared to his previous three seasons, but still recorded a respectable ERA of 3.49, with a 4.15 FIP, a 7.82 K/9, and a 3.25 BB/9. More importantly for this season was the fact that Wandy pitched 191 innings which could assist in helping to preserve the bullpen whose workload could increase due to a younger and more inexperienced staff. The six projection systems on Fangraphs have Wandy posting a line of 189.1 IP, 7.82 K/9, 3.10 BB/9, 3.76 ERA, and a 3.86 FIP. In short it would be more of what we’ve come to expect from our lefty.
Bud took another step forward last year and proved that he can be a successful starter. He appeared to have sacrificed some velocity (average fastball of 93.6 in 2010 versus 92.6 in 2011) for improved control (4.51 BB/9 in 2010 versus a 3.39 BB/9 in 2011.) The key to Norris’ success could be his continuing transformation from a thrower into a pitcher while subsequently expanding his repertoire and giving him more weapons at his disposal on the mound. Bud’s projections are similar to Wandy’s with a line of 183 IP, 8.63 K/9, 3.58 BB/9, 4.03 ERA, and a 3.95 FIP.
J.A. Happ – Consistency and Happ have eluded each other for most of his career, and 2011 was no different. His struggles last season led to a late season demotion to Oklahoma City. Upon his return Happ gave reason to be hopeful by returning to his 2010 form, but also once again over-performed his peripheral stats which could spell trouble for those hoping to see more of the post-AAA-demotion version of J.A. Happ. Control has always been the issue with Happ, and it’s not surprise that his best year came in 2009 when he was able to post a walk rate of 3.0 BB/9 in 166 innings. Since that time he has not been able to get his walk rate any lower than 4.4. His projections averaged a line of 142.86 IP, 7.42 K/9, 4.36 BB/9, 4.46 ERA, and a 4.51 FIP.
Bottom of the rotation – Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell won the final two spots in the rotation, and both players production at the major league level is unknown. What we do know is that both pitchers have experienced a decent amount of success in the minors. Weiland has averaged an ERA of 3.51 with an 8.5 K/9, and 3.4 BB/9 over 4 seasons in the minors. Harrell has averaged a 3.65 ERA with a 6.0 K/9, and a 4.3 BB/9 over 7 seasons in the minors. What Harrell loses in strikeouts he makes up for in groundballs by posting a groundball percentage higher than 52% at every stop. The fact that neither pitcher has thrown more than 161 innings in a season is somewhat concerning, but both are at an age where they should be able to absorb the increase in innings without adding any extra injury concerns as well.
Injury Concerns – Even though none of the starters have missed any serious time with injuries, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, and J.A. Happ have all missed some time due to injuries. It would be a big loss if one of these three were to miss a significant amount of time because of an injury due to the lack of experience among the other starters.
Closer’s Role - With the departure of incumbent closer Mark Melancon via trade Luhnow decided to move Brett Myers to the closer’s role which gives the bullpen a veteran presence late in the game. Myers proved to be a capable closer in his first and only stint in the role saving 21 games in 24 opportunities in 2007. He finished that season with a 5-5 record and 2.87 ERA in 48 relief appearances spanning 53.1 innings.
Setup Role – Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter, Fernando Rodriguez, and Brandon Lyon have all handled the setup role in the past, or appear capable of handling that role this year. Wilton Lopez had an excellent rookie season in 2010 posting a 2.96 ERA and a 2.59 FIP. His ERA improved last season to the tune of 2.79, but his 3.43 FIP and his struggle with stranding inherited runners show that he was not as successful of a pitcher last season. Still his spring has been encouraging, and even though he’s not a big strikeout guy he could fill-in as closer if Myers struggles or gets injured.
In 34 appearances with the Astros last season David Carpenter posted a 1-3 record with a save and a 2.93 ERA. Carpenter has closer potential in the future averaging 93.9 MPH on his fastball that he threw 80% of the time last season. He was a little bit wild last season and still needs to work on refining his slider, but has the making of being a solid late inning reliever.
Fernando Rodriguez ended up being a pleasant surprise last season making his Astros debut. Even though his fastball isn’t particularly overpowering he still managed to record 57 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings on the strength of his solid curveball.
The veteran Brandon Lyon is no stranger to pitching in the late innings, but will probably be used in less stressful situations to open the season due to coming back from missing most of last season due to injury. In 2010 Lyon pitched a total of 78 innings and saved 20 games while splitting time with Matt Lindstrom. However, due to the previous injury the Astros would be doing well if they were able to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 innings out of Lyon this season.
The Lefty – The battle of who wins the left-handed relief role in the bullpen appears to be the only battle left on the pitching staff. Wesley Wright has the most experience in the majors, and was successful in the role last year with the Astros in a small sample size. He is also out of options which may play a part in the decision. The Astros toyed with the idea of making Fernando Abad a starter to open the 2011 season but he ultimately made the Astros roster as a reliever. He struggled heavily to open the season with the Astros, but found his groove later in the season in Oklahoma City.
Rule 5 pick – Rhiner Cruz possesses a crisp fastball and is also a future candidate to be a late inning reliever, but he would first have to resolve his control issues. Due to his rule 5 status Cruz will have to work on his control issues at the major league level and will hopefully be able to make the needed adjustments otherwise there is a good possibility that he could be offered back to the Mets at some point during the season.
It is nice to see the Astros starting rotation getting younger, but with that comes a risk. The Astros due have young guys major league ready or close to major league ready like Jordan Lyles, Aneury Rodriguez, Paul Clemens, Dallas Keuchel, and more that could all see some time this season. One thing to keep in mind with Wandy is that he has a decent shot at being moved at the trade deadline, and if so one of the younger pitchers mentioned above could likely step in and take his place. The bullpen is full of unproven arms outside of Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon, but Myers is making the transition back to the relief role and Lyon is returning from surgery which only adds to the bullpens uncertainty.