Winter Meetings 2013: How do you build a better bullpen?

That's what the Astros front office is asking. They're going about it in the usual way, even if it may not inspire confidence.

Yeah.

I'm guessing the addition of Anthony Bass by the Astros Wednesday didn't set off a ticket-buying frenzy at the Minute Maid Park offices. I'm guessing no one saw this move and pumped their fists in the air.

But, how else should Houston fix its woeful bullpen?

A quick reminder of how bad the Astros were last year in the 'pen:

  • 24 pitchers threw innings in relief for Houston last year.
  • Only three had tERAs under 4.00, and one of those guys was Jake Elmore.
  • Another was Jose Veras, who didn't finish the season in that bullpen.
  • Two different pitchers had at least 10 Meltdowns in a game last year.
  • Seven more had five or more Meltdowns.
  • Only six of those pitchers had positive "Win Probability Added" for the season.
  • As a team, the relievers had a 4.92 ERA with a 5.09 FIP and -5.4 WAR.
  • The relievers combined to be credited with a record of 14-40 in 534 innings.
  • Houston finished a mind-bogglingly bad 18-36 in one-run games last season.

How do you fix such a beast? Is there a sure-fire way to do so?

It's certainly not by paying top dollar for closers. Jonathan Papelbon was not going to save this roster, nor was Joe Nathan or any other big-name closer. This bullpen needed lots and lots of help, like the 2007 Tampa Bay bullpen did.

Those Rays posted an ERA of 6.16 with a 21-34 record in 497 innings. It was pretty rough. What did the (Devil) Rays do?

They got J.P. Howell, signed Trever Miller and Troy Percival as the closer. They also counted on bounce back performances from Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, who had previously posted good peripherals but hadn't prevented runs very well.

What happened? The 2008 Rays 'pen posted an ERA of 3.55 and cut Tampa Bay's losses by relievers to from 34 to 17. They also improved in one-run games from 22-21 to 29-18. Let that sink in for a minute. The 66-96 2007 Devil Rays lost 13 fewer one run games than the Astros and they still improved by a huge margin thanks to a revamped bullpen.

What's funny is that the Percival signing didn't even move the meter for Tampa Bay much. He was largely ineffective in his 45 innings for the Rays.

Why are we talking about this? Because to fix a bullpen, it's not all about money. It's about good look, good scouting and some bounce-back years.

Flash forward to this winter. Houston has already added a solid reliever in Chad Qualls, who gives Houston 60 quality innings in the bullpen. They added Anthony Bass, who has flashed a fastball around 97 and hovers at 92 with below-average control. They are trying to add Jose Veras back as a closer and they hope that Kevin Chapman, Josh Zeid and David Martinez can provide more quality innings.

With Bass, Houston may even be attempting more of its piggy-back starter approach from last year, using him as a swingman who can come into games and prevent certain starters (Cosart, anyone?) from facing a lineup three times.

Maybe the Anthony Bass trade will be more like the Edgar Gonzalez moves the past couple of years. Or the Wade LeBlanc waiver claims or any number of moves Luhnow has made to try and figure out his bullpen puzzle. But, by acquiring guys who are healthy with a chance to rebound, they're following the only successful blueprint for figuring out how to tame the Luck Dragons of the bullpen.

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