MLB free agency: Matt Albers improves Houston's bullpen, illustrates how team built

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Houston signs Matt Albers. It's another non-flashy signing, but could show us how organization is trying to build a pitching staff.

Last week, news broke at the Winter Meetings that the Astros were negotiating with Jose Veras on a possible return to Houston. Those talks reportedly broke down due to money.

During those meetings, I wrote about Houston shifting its focus to target tiers of players instead of specific free agents. That they had set a price and were trying to find a fit for that money, instead of locking in on one player. Monday's news that Houston has reached an agreement with Matt Albers on a one-year, $2.5 million deal with an option for 2015 only confirms this plan.

Houston likely offered Veras a similar deal that he got last year. He wanted more money because he's a "proven closer" now and Houston moved on. Instead of Veras, they add Albers, who has less profile but fits a growing mold for what Houston wants out of a pitcher. Albers has an elite ground ball rate, control that has improved over the past two years and health.

That last one is not insignificant. Once again Houston made a signing and once again, they sign a guy who's got little injury history. Albers has thrown at least 60 innings in relief in each of the past five years. He also possesses one elite pitching skill, which just so happens to be a great ground ball rate.

With the Indians last season, Albers was nearly as good as he was in 2012, but his peripherals were much better, thanks to his average left on base percentage. Will he post a sub-3.50 ERA in 2014? There's a decent chance of it. What's more assured is that Albers gives Houston 60+ innings with an ERA of 4.00 or less.

Given last year's bullpen, there's plenty of value to that.

Soon, we'll revisit that notion from last April about Houston's vision of a pitching staff dominated by ground ball pitchers. It's worth noting both the relievers they've signed so far are ground ball guys, that the big league rotation pieces they've added (Alex White, Scott Feldman) are ground ball guys and that one of the few prospects who stuck in the big leagues last year is a ground ball artist. Given Chris' article about Dallas Keuchel, I'd say there's a good shot he sticks in the rotation as well.

The Cardinals were said to favor ground ball pitchers when Luhnow was there. Considering how much of the brain trust he's imported from St. Louis, I'd say it's a good bet that the ground ball fixation was imported as well. Houston is smart enough not to focus on one thing and only one thing when acquiring or evaluating players. I'm sure Mike Fast and others outside the STL connection have just as much say over pitcher virtues.

But, that focus on ground ball rate as a general rule has led to some success in St. Louis with guys like Jaime Garcia. It probably also explains why Dallas Keuchel is in Houston.

Thinking smart about building a pitching staff is nothing new for this Astros front office. Maybe, with the additions of Qualls and Albers, Houston is closer to actually possessing a good staff on the field to complement its smart one in the GM suite.

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