The Astros continued their effort at fortifying the bullpen by signing free agent relief pitcher Matt Albers. Albers is a former high school player out of Sugarland, Texas, who was drafted by the Astros in 2001, later pitching his rookie season at the major league level for the Astros. Albers' contract is reported at $2.25MM in 2014 with a $200K buyout on a $3MM option for 2015. This seems like a reasonable cost for an average veteran relief pitcher.
Albers has a power sinker which averages 93 mph, and produces a ton of groundballs. Albers had a 63% GB rate last year, and his career average GB rate is 52%. The Astros have shown a distinct preference for groundball pitchers with their recent player acquisitions. In part this may reflect the fact that groundball pitchers provide run prevention at a relatively low price tag, compared to the more vaunted strike out pitchers. Albers' career K rate is 6.29, with a high of 9.46 with the Red Sox in 2011. He had a low 5.00 K rate in 2013, but as noted, he had the highest groundball rate of his career, a characteristic which tends to suppress strike outs.
The projection systems, Steamer and Oliver, provide, respectively, the following projections of ERA/FIP for Albers: 3.56 / 3.59 and 3.52 / 4.21. Albers' ERA and FIP with the Indians last year was 3.14 and 3.49. His career ERA and FIP are higher (4.49 and 4.46), but much of the differential was contributed by his early years as a starting pitcher.
Albers was called up to the majors at age 23 by the Astros in 2006. He was used as both a starting pitcher and reliever by the Astros in 2006 and 2007. More than half of Albers' games with the Astros were starting assignments, and he struggled with ERAs over 5. Albers was traded to the Orioles as part of the package that netted Miguel Tejeda. The Orioles tried Albers as a starting pitcher, but he eventually settled into a middle reliever role.
I have a couple of initial reactions to the signing. First, not only do the Astros like groundballers, but it's apparent that they like to sign pitchers with local connections. Feldman's wife is from Houston; Qualls is a former Astros pitcher, and now lives in Austin, Texas. The Astros have had trouble getting to the finish line, to use Luhnow's term, with other free agent relievers; but the local connections undoubtedly help the Astros succeed in these signings. Secondly, this is a solid free agent signing which should produce a substantial number of innings of league average pitching. Albers isn't an elite closer, but he is a veteran middle reliever. And league average pitching is a big improvement over how the Astros' bullpen performed last year. This move will reunite Qualls and Albers, who both pitched for Houston in 2006 and 2007.