Consider this a special segment from the comments of today's Three Things article. The debate about Houston's bullpen got brought up and one of the commenters said that Houston could have easily signed some guys to one-year contracts and fixed the bullpen right up.
Out of curiosity, I decided to dive into the question, figuring out just which free agents signed one-year deals, which teams they signed with and how they have performed to this point. What I found was that 14 relievers signed one-year deals. The highest of those went to Koji Uehara, who signed a $4.25 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. Three more were for over $2 million with another nine clocking in between $700,000 and $1.5 million.
Another 28 relievers signed minor league deals, which count almost like one-year contracts. That group includes former closers like Matt Capps. Of course, it also means that most of those players end up in the minors. Of those 28, only nine have played in the majors this season and two of those aren't even playing for the same team with which they originally signed.
One of those one-year deals went to Houston's Jose Veras, so let's round off our numbers with an even 40 guys. How many of those relievers could have signed with Houston instead?
Well, there are plenty of players like Uehara who signed with either teams with winning records in 2012 or teams with high payrolls and great reputations. That includes the Red Sox and the Dodgers, who signed three players total out of the 40. Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Texas, World Series champ San Francisco and the Chicago White Sox also join this camp.
We can also eliminate all the guys who haven't played in the majors yet. If they aren't playing for another team, they probably wouldn't be playing for the Astros, thus making it impossible for them to fix our bullpen.
Oh, and we also have a handful of players, like the Cubs' Shawn Camp, who re-signed with the team they played for in 2012, making it highly unlikely they would have chosen Houston on the open market.
Where does that leave us?
There were eight players who did not fit into any of the groups above. Those eight included Scott Atchison, Jon Rauch, Mike Gonzalez, Brandon Lyon, LaTroy Hawkins, Chad Qualls, Rich Hill and Hisanori Takahashi. Can we assume that Brandon Lyon was not going to re-sign with the team that traded him last summer? And that Hawkins may not be too keen on coming back to Houston for the same reasons?
That knocks us down to seven players. Of those, let's eliminate guys with an FIP or SIERA over 4.00, because even in small sample size, that wouldn't help this bullpen, right? Goodbye, Takahashi, Atchison and Rauch.
We're down to three guys at this point who could have legitimately helped Houston's bullpen and been signed to a one-year deal. Mike Gonzalez chose the Brewers on a one-year, $2.25 million deal. Do you think Houston could have gotten him for more money than they're paying their own closer?
How about Chad Qualls and Rich Hill? Both were signed to minor league deals, but have pitched in the majors for Miami and Cleveland, respectively. Even though Cleveland was bad, their winter acquisition spree probably drew guys like Hill there on minor league deals, hoping they could be part of a winner. Would he have signed with Houston for the same deal or for more money? Doubtful.
That leaves us with just one guy, former closer Jon Rauch. He's been good for the Marlins so far, and he could have replaced Rhiner Cruz pretty neatly. But, there's still no guarantee the 34-year old will be enough better than Cruz to justify making that deal, even if it's only for one-year, $1 million.
Even then, I'm not sure Houston's payroll hinged on not offering the old guy a million to play here. They probably just evaluated guys like Josh Fields and Hector Ambriz more favorably than Rauch. That's understandable.
Oh, and did I mention that the only real weak links in Houston's bullpen so far have been Xavier Cedeno (who's not on the team) and Rhiner Cruz? Ambriz has been solid (though he's prone to giving up homers) and Veras has been good too, in limited work. Cedeno is already gone while Houston has brought in the long relievers.
That long relief strategy wouldn't be possible if Houston did what the Mets did and add a bunch of million dollar relievers. New York signed five players on this list and gotten middling results out of them. For every LaTroy Hawkins success, there's a Carlos Torres failure.
It's easy to argue for adding money. It's much harder to find actual contracts signed around the league that Houston could have duplicated. They're out there, but they are pretty hard to find.