Your Tuesday morning special is a look at the 2009 Astros bullpen. First, though, I thought we could consider a question:
Can a minor league reliever be considered a prospect?
Almost all the Astros homegrown bullpen additions this decade have been starters in the minors before making the major leauge club. Guys like Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge and Chris Sampson made a successful transition into relievers, but started almost all of their games on the farm. Lately, though, the Astros have been moving prospects into the bullpen earlier in their minor league career and still giving them a shot to make the club.
As a comparison, only three players in the past 13 years have made their major league debut for the Astros after not starting more than 10 games in the minors. They were:
- Wayne Franklin, came over from Dodgers, but was a minor league reliever before being called up in 2000. Franklin started just seven games in the minors before coming up during the first year at Enron, which was a wasteland of relievers. Remember the best pitcher in the 2000 bullpen, Joe Slusarsky? Yeah, it was bad. Franklin was sent back to the minors in 2001 and put into the starting rotation, much like the Astros are talking about doing with Wesley Wright (more on that later).
- Brandon Puffer, went through three organizations before being called up in 2002, but only started six games in minors. Puffer doesn't show this as much, because he bounced around so much early in his career. Plus, his funky sidearm delivery was probably not though of as something that would hold up in a starter's role, forcing him into the 'pen.
- Alvin Morman was called up in 1996, but only started 19 games in the minors. Even then, he was only used as a starter for part of one season (1994), when he started all 19 games at Double-A Jackson. Morman was a relatively high pick (6th round, 1991), but stayed in the pen for most of his career, as some leftys do.
That all changed this season when Sammy Gervacio made his big league debut. The 24-year old never started a game in the minors before appearing in 29 games this season over two stints in Houston. Another reliever, Chia-Jen Lo, is doing well in the Arizona Fall League after signing out of Taiwan last season. Lo also has been used mainly as a reliever along with a couple other mid-level prospects, like Danny Meszaros. Still, there is not a good history of guys with this profile succeeding. It will be interesting to track whether this is a trend that is changing or if these prospects will flame out once they get to the show. With that, let's get on with a look at the bullpen...
Tim Byrdak, LHP
2009 Season Stats: 1-2, 61 1/3 IP, 3.23 ERA, 76 games, 58 strikeouts, 36 walks, 10 HR, 1.22 WHIP, 129 ERA+
Leverage: 24 High, 13 Medium, 36 Low
Pitching Runs Created: 30
Notes: For a lefty specialist, Byrdak sure developed into a solid pitcher for the Astros. It really surprised me that he pitched in so many high leverage situations. His peripheral stats are worrying, as he was EXTREMELY lucky to give up so few hits and without a good defense, Byrdak would not have done nearly this well. The two things that jump out (other than his FIP and BABiP) were his homer rate (1.5 HR/9) and his walk rate (5.3 BB/9). Both were right in line with his career numbers, but are not great, especially the walk rate. At the same time, Byrdak has put up three straight seasons with ERAs of 3.00, so he's doing something right. Hopefully, he'll still be effective in 2010.
Chris Sampson, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 4-2, 3 saves, 55 1/3 IP, 5.04 ERA, 49 games, 33 strikeouts, 21 walks, 2 HR, 1.57 WHIP, 82 ERA+
Leverage: 25 high, 10 medium, 14 low
Pitching Runs Created: 15
Notes: Talk about a hard luck season. Sampson suffered muscle spasms in his shoulder and was put on the DL in July. He came back but was ineffective and was finally optioned to Round Rock on August 13. Sampson pitched in some very tough situations and was somewhat unlucky before the injury, but his shoulder may still not be right. His FIP was much lower than his ERA, but his strikeout rate plummeted. Basically, Sampson was very hittable and that needs to change if he's going to be successful in 2010.
LaTroy Hawkins, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 1-4, 11 saves, 63 1/3 IP, 65 games, 2.13 ERA, 45 strikeouts, 16 walks, 7 HR, 1.20 WHIP, 195 ERA+
Leverage: 35 high, 10 medium, 17 low
Pitching Runs Created: 39
Notes: Hawkins put up great numbers, especially considering he pitched in more high leverage situations this season than any other Astros reliever. He'll be 37 next season in his 16th big league season. Fun fact: Hawkins actually started 129 games in the minors and was used as a starter by Minnesota for three seasons in the majors before beginning his very lucrative career in the bullpen. Hawkins was probably a little lucky this past season and his strikeout rate isn't anything to write home about. Still, with the rest of the bullpen being as solid as it is, I could see Hawkins closing next season and filling in the rest of the 'pen with Arias, Fulchino and Gervacio.
Jeff Fulchino, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 6-4, 82 IP, 61 games, 3.40 ERA, 71 strikeouts, 27 walks, 7 HR, 1.18 WHIP, 122 ERA+
Leverage: 18 high, 14 medium, 28 low
Pitching Runs Created: 37
Notes: Thank you Kansas City Royals. The Astros plucked Fulchino off waivers last December and were rewarded with a great season out of the bullpen. In face, Fulchino's season almost makes up for how bad the other Royal imports (Jason Smith, Tyler Lumsden) were. While his strikeout rate doesn't strike fear in the hearts of other teams, Fulchino did avoid giving up home runs for the most part. He also wasn't used in a ton of high leverage situations, so his stats were perfect for middle relief.
Jose Valverde, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 4-2, 25 saves, 54 IP, 52 games, 2.33 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 21 walks, 5 HR, 1.13 WHIP, 178 ERA+
Leverage: 26 high, 13 medium, 10 low
Pitching Runs Created: 34
Notes: Valverde was exactly what the Astros needed. He brought a swagger to the mound that this team lacked. Injuries robbed him of time this season and the fact that the Astros weren't very good down the stretch held his save total down. You can't ask for much more out of a closer, though, as he managed to strike out one an inning and his home run rate was the lowest since 2005. He has enough concerning factors to his season that I worry about giving him a long term deal. For one, his strikeout rate was the lowest of his career and his BABiP meant his season was more lucky than you'd like. With a couple more hits landing, his numbers could easily have skewed upwards more. Since he's already suffered through an injury-riddled season, what will happen if the Astros give him a 4-to-5 year deal and he's hurt for half of it?
Alberto Arias, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 2-1, 45 2/3 innings, 3.35 ERA, 42 games, 39 strikeouts, 19 walks, 1 HR, 1.49 WHIP, 124 ERA+
Leverage: 12 high, 8 medium, 22 low
Pitching Runs Created: 18
Notes: When discussing Ed Wade's best moves, Arias has to be among them. While not a home run-type move, Arias was gotten for nothing and has turned into a very effective reliever. Arias had a higher-than-normal BABiP, meaning he was a little unlucky in posting a higher-than-league average ERA. The only thing that's a little concerning about Arias going forward is his strikeout rate is a bit low. Without missing a few more bats, Arias is going to have a hard time giving up just one home run again next season.
Wesley Wright, LHP
2009 Season Stats: 3-4, 44 2/3 IP, 5.44 ERA, 49 games, 47 strikeouts, 25 walks, 9 HR, 1.75 WHIP, 76 ERA+
Leverage: 7 high, 18 medium, 24 low
Pitching Runs Created: 14
Notes: The word is the Astros would like to make Wright into a starter. With his age (25) and relative lack of innings to this point, it may take an entire season at Triple-A for Wright to make the transition. Having more left-handed starters, though, can't be a bad thing. Wright has been effective and used in semi-big situations. While Cooper didn't have as much confidence in him as Byrdak (judging by leverage situations), Wright did an adequate job and still strikes out a ton of batters. Even if he loses 2 strikeouts per nine innings off his rate by moving into the starting rotation, he'll still be very effective.
Sammy Gervacio, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 1-1, 21 IP, 2.14 ERA, 29 games, 25 strikeouts, 8 walks, 1 HR, 1.14 WHIP, 194 ERA+
Leverage: 7 high, 7 medium, 15 low
Pitching Runs Created: 15
Notes: As I mentioned above, Gervacio was one of the few Astros prospects to make the big league without starting a game in the minors. Gervacio was the only Astro with a double-digit K/9 rate, and had a smaller walk rate than in the minors. Still, Gervacio didn't pitch many innings, but showed enough to be a big contributor next season. He was used in a few high leverage situations and didn't embarrass himself. In fact, his usage pattern was somewhat surprising for a rookie. His FIP and BABiP all showed that his performance was not a fluke, though with his innings, the sample size wasn't big enough to draw huge conclusions. I would be happy to use him in the 'pen in 2010, though, instead of a more expensive option (see: Valverde, Jose).
Geoff Geary, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 1-3, 20 IP, 8.10 ERA, 16 games, 12 strikeouts, 10 walks, 4 HR, 2.00 WHIP, 51 ERA+
Leverage: 6 high, 4 medium, 6 low
Pitching Runs Created: 3
Notes: Geary is a good example of why teams shouldn't spend a ton of money on non-closers. Relievers are so fungible, it's hard to justify spending the money for a multi-year contract when their performance can vary so greatly. Take Geary; in 2008, he was a good addition to the 'pen and one of the better throw-ins to the Brad Lidge trade. In 2009? Geary finished the season in the minors and was granted free agency. The righty never could get locked in this season, even though he was used about the same in leveraged situations. His BABiP was high, which means he was probably unlucky. I could see Geary having a productive year for someone in 2010, though it probably won't be the Astros.
Doug Brocail, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 1-0, 17 2/3 IP, 4.58 ERA, 20 games, 9 strikeouts, 13 walks, 4 HR, 1.95 WHIP, 91 ERA+
Leverage: 4 high, 2 medium, 12 low
Pitching Runs Created: 6
Notes: It's safe to say the Doug Brocail experiment didn't work out as the Astros had planned. It's not that Brocail did poorly. In fact, you could argue that he was Houston's most effective reliever in 2008. However, his age may have caught up to him this season, as Brocail only played 20 games before suffering an arm injury (?). What's interesting is looking at what leveraged situations Brocail was used in this season. For someone who was so good a season before, Cooper obviously didn't want to use him in pressure situations in 2009, as he was used in twice as many low pressure situations as anything else.
Chad Paronto, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 0-0, 6 2/3 IP, 12.15 ERA, 6 games, 3 strikeouts, 1 walk, 4 HR, 2.40 WHIP, 34 ERA+
Leverage: 0 high, 0 medium, 6 low
Pitching Runs Created: 1
Notes: Paronto has been great for Round Rock the past two seasons, but battled injuries in 2009. He was called up in September and gave up a ton of home runs, but was a tad unlucky. Paronto is exactly the kind of arm the Astros have collected at Triple-A the past few years. He's serviceable but probably only needed in spot duty in the majors, if there is an injury.
Billy Sadler, RHP
2009 Season Stats: 0-0, 1 1/3 IP, 13.50 ERA, 1 game, 2 strikeouts, 1 walk, 0 HR, 2.25 WHIP, 31 ERA+
Leverage: 0 high, 0 medium, 1 low
Pitching Runs Created: 0
Notes: The only Astros pitcher to not get at least one Pitching Run Created, the story was that Wade promised Sadler he'd be added to the big league team before the end of the season. That's why he got the call-up at the end of September, though Sadler didn't pitch much at all. Fun moments in small sample size: Sadler's FIP was 11 runs lower than his ERA, but only because he struck out two in his 1 1/3 innings. Of course, now Sadler's a free agent and probably won't come back. But we'll always have that 1 1/3 innings.