On the Astros: Diagnosing Houston's bullpen for preventative measures

Could Houston have fixed the bullpen in the offseason? Let's break it down in a different way than the usual argument.

Oh, boy. The Astros bullpen has been bad, right?

Superbad, even?

It's getting ridiculous at this point how tenuous a lead can be. Bo Porter is pissed. Changes are happening. And yet, we still get people arguing that the Astros front office was wrong for not addressing the bullpen in the offseason. I feel like we keep having the same arguments over and over again lately, but I thought we should take a different approach today.

Let's steal a concept from Bill Simmons and steal a line from the HBO Movie "And the Band Played On." Let's ask ourselves what we think, what we know and what we can prove about this Astros bullpen.

What do we think?

That the bullpen is TERRIBLE. It makes fans visibly angry for days after games. The level of snark and derision about the Astros bullpen on Twitter is nearing dangerous levels. We think that Hector Ambriz is a Human White Flag. We think that Wesley Wright is being misused. We think that the only stable part of the bullpen may be traded in a matter of days. We think that Paul Clemens was good, but then he was bad, and maybe is better off as a starter.

Most of all, we think that Jeff Luhnow and his crack staff of front office personnel should have done more over the winter to fix the bullpen. It was a weakness back then and it's still a weakness. That seems like a pretty big failure.

What do we know?

We know that Houston's bullpen isn't historically bad, at least in ERA terms.

We know that they are in danger of going so tater-happy that they'll blow away the single-season record for most home runs allowed.

We know that there were 36 free agent relievers signed by teams between October 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013. Of those 36, five signed three-year deals and six more signed two-year deals. Ten of those players re-signed with the same team they pitched for at the end of 2012. Six more signed with teams with winning records. One more was Brett Myers, who didn't sign as a reliever, and another was Carlos Villanueva, who is a swing starter.

That leaves six free agent relievers Houston could have added.

We know that Houston had the following relievers on its Opening Day roster: Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, Jose Veras and Wesley Wright.

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Photo credit: Bob Levey

We know that Fields was a Rule 5 pick from 2012 and that Cruz was picked in the previous Rule 5 draft. We know that Ambriz was selected off waivers towards the end of 2012 and that Gonzalez was to be a long reliever in the bullpen. We know that Wesley Wright was the most tenured pitcher on the staff.

We know that Houston suffered a number of pitching injuries during spring training. We know they lost Alex White unexpectedly. We know they also lost John Ely and Rudy Owens to injury along with Edgar Gonzalez. We know that Josh Fields has missed much of the season with various injuries, too.

We know that Houston has continued to tinker with the bullpen this season, as 17 different pitchers have now appeared in relief for Houston. Six of those have pitched less than 20 innings. Five of those 17 relievers have also started games or were viewed mainly as starters.

We know that Houston has called up four pitchers to bolster the bullpen. We know the Astros have claimed one more off waivers and traded for another.

What can we prove?

Two things.

First, we can prove that the free agent crop wouldn't have saved this Houston bullpen. Let's take another look at that Opening Day roster again, with a look at who might have been expendable.

Jose Veras (Just signed)

Josh Fields (Rule 5, not going anywhere)

Rhiner Cruz (Talented, but expendable)

Wesley Wright (Tenured, highly unlikely to be moved)

Hector Ambriz (Expendable but well-liked)

Edgar Gonzalez (Expendable for another long man)

Xavier Cedeno (Expendable)

I'd argue that Ambriz wasn't going to be touched, since the front office liked him enough to swipe him and give him a 40-man roster spot over the winter. But, for these purposes, we'll throw him into the ring. Let's say Houston could have turned over two spots in the bullpen with free agent signees. Here are the likely candidates, with stats from this year:

Carlos Villanueva - 2-7, 4.09 FIP, 2 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns

Tom Gorzelanny - 2-4, 3.81 FIP, 8 shutdowns, 4 meltdowns

Jon Rauch - 1-2, 3.46 FIP, 1 shutdown, 4 meltdowns

Chad Durbin - 1-0, 5.98 FIP, 0 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns

Matt Lindstrom - 2-3, 3.14 FIP, 15 shutdowns, 9 meltdowns

Mike Gonzalez - 0-3, 4.06 FIP, 8 shutdowns, 13 meltdowns

That's a motley bunch, isn't it? But, let's say we swap out Matt Lindstrom and Tom Gorzelanny with two of Houston's bullpen bunch. Gorzelanny would have taken Edgar Gonzalez' spot and let's plug in Lindstrom for everyone's favorite whipping boy, Hector Ambriz. Here's how those two Astros have performed, with net gain to the team:

Ambriz - 12 shutdowns, 10 meltdowns, swing of four games

Gonzalez - 0 shutdown, 1 meltdown, swing of four games

But, remember, if we replace EdGon with Gorzelanny, we also replace all those times Paul Clemens went multiple innings in impressive fashion. He had six shutdowns to four meltdowns this year. So, how much help could he have done?

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Also, just because adding Lindstrom and Gorzelanny would have swung eight close games doesn't mean they automatically end up in wins. Houston still has to make sure its other relievers do their job. Plus, we're getting into all sorts of what-ifs about sequencing and game leverage. Let's say Houston gets a boost and wins all eight games of difference there. They're still sitting with 43 wins and tied for the third-worst record in the league.

Okay, you say, why not just blow up the entire bullpen and sign all those guys? What about someone like Jose Valverde? Valverde has been terrible and is quite a bit worse than Jose Veras, Houston's hand-picked closer. But, the point stands.

We can prove, though, that Luhnow will not build his bullpen that way. What's more, we can prove he's pretty good at building a bullpen in general.

If Houston went whole hog and signed a ton of relievers this offseason, it would have stunted the development of actual decent relievers like Jose Cisnero

In the last nine years, the St. Louis Cardinals have only posted FIPs over 4.20 three times and one of those came in 2006, when the fruits of Luhnow's farm system weren't quite ripe yet. Over that stretch, though, the Cards bullpens had negative WAR totals only twice and never posted a combined ERA over 4.20. They were pretty good.

What's more, they did it mostly with homegrown talent. Twenty-nine pitchers threw at least 40 innings over that stretch. Most of those names are drafted and developed by the Cards, with the odd reclamation project turned closer in the mix, like Braden Looper, Ryan Franklin or Jason Isringhausen.

Luhnow's background is about building a bullpen through smart, buy-low opportunities and bringing up prospects to sustain the 'pen in the long term. If Houston went whole hog and signed a ton of relievers this offseason, it would have stunted the development of actual decent relievers like Jose Cisnero and...well, that's about it.

Plus, throw in the role that the Luck Dragons play on bullpen success or defeat and there's no telling how a bullpen of those free agents might have performed. Like I said in a comment the other day, the Blue Jays have one of the best bullpens in the league this year. Last season, they had one of the worst. They did not change personnel.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

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