After failing to re-sign Randy Wolf, and showing no interest in adding Ben Sheets or Andy Pettitte, the Astros will again have to rely heavily on the bullpen to win games. The core of that successful 2008 group has remained intact for the most part: closer Jose Valverde, set up men Doug Brocail and LaTroy Hawkins, along with Chris Sampson and Wes Wright. Geoff Geary and Tim Byrdak are making their cases before an arbiter, but will be back next season as well.
We can look at projections of all sorts for the relief corps, but what 2008 stats we look to get a shapshot of their past season? ERA is over-used (and often times misleading), but there are a few that may be are worth looking into. FIP, HR/FB% and BABIP are all worthwhile, under-used statistics for the most part. While relying too heavily can get you into trouble when evaluating performances, using past performance to predict future returns is usually a smart move. Here are the seven main relief pitchers' 2008 statistics:
- Brydak is an interesting case. He had an insanely high HR/FB% in 2008, but also an extremely low BABIP. Both should correct this season, leaving him with an ERA in the mid 4's.
- Geoff Geary has the double whammy of having a very low BABIP and HR/FB%, which usually leads to a regression in performance. He has pretty much an even GB%/FB% (43.7/41.0) which doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence in me that those numbers are going to remain near their 2008 levels.
- Wes Wright has the advantage of being really, really young and so he should improve based soley on the uptick in major league experience. He gave up more homers than the average pitcher, so it looks like a dip in runs allowed should be forthcoming.
- Chris Sampson before he was injured was having a phenomenal year, despite the average ERA. His 2008 stats are very much sustainable, and an improvement looks likely.
- LaTroy Hawkins should give up a few more home runs this season, after allowing only three in 62 innings last season in New York and Houston. He should perform well again, on the whole, and justify his return for another season. A 65% LOB% in 2008 was fairly unlucky for him as well, another reason to believe his numbers will improve at least slightly in 2009.
- Doug Brocail had a spectacular year last year in terms of striking hitters out. His K/9 of 8.39 was his highest since the 1999 season, when he struck out 8.56 batters per nine innings for Detroit. That number should recede and Brocail enters his 18th big league season, but his performance shouldn't suffer all that much. Having LaTroy Hawkins for a full year should lighten his load considerably, leaving his arm fresher for August and September.
- Finally, Jose Valverde is coming off his second straight year of leading the NL in saves. I don't see any indication that his performance this year should be any different than last year. He actually had a better season last year, in terms of K/BB an BB/9 than he did in 2007, when his ERA was 2.66. He was lucky to a certain extent in his last season in Arizona, compiling a FIP of 3.58, and a LOB% of 82. Both of which may have led to the Diamondback's decision to trade him away. 2009 should be another great year for Valverde, and a third year of topping the league in saves is a definite possibility.
Overall, it seems like an improvement is due from Wright and Sampson, with regressions on the horizon for Byrdak and Geary. The back-end of the bullpen should turn in similar seasons compared to 2008.
Note: Gilbert De La Vara and Bud Norris will be competing for spots in the bullpen during spring training