Last off-season, GM Jeff Luhnow set about to fix that, and spent a sizable chunk of change, as well as making a few trades here and there, to bring in a new crew of firemen and improve the team's late-game chances. Let's break down who did what, and see if we can decide whether or not Luhnow succeeded.
The Returning Internals
Just seven relievers who had pitched for the team last year threw at least one inning at some point for the club in 2014, and of them, only two logged 30 innings or more.
The man of biggest note was Josh Fields, who was acquired during the Rule 5 draft back before the 2013 season began. Though his 4.45 looks ugly, it hardly tells the story; Fields posted a stellar 11.52 K/9, the best mark of any pitcher on the team, as well as a very nice 2.80 BB/9 to go with it. This gave him a 4.12 K/BB ratio, second only to Qualls on the team, and better even than standouts like Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel.
Kevin Chapman also stands out, but not so much as Fields in terms of excellent. During the early part of the season, Chapman 3.2 innings for the club, and his well-know issue with walks surfaced (seven free passes during that time) and sabotaged his game. He was sent down to AAA and didn't return until July, but from that point on, he posted a 2.04 BB/9 through the end of the season. In fact, he became a man that the Astros would go to increasingly in high-leverage situations, and he didn't disappoint. The sample size is small, but encouraging.
And special mention must be made for poor Josh Zeid, probably the unluckiest player on the entire team this year. How unlucky? His .364 BAbip isn't even the worst part of it. No, instead, take a look at his HR/FB ratio of 27.3%. That's twenty seven point three percent. That means that more than 1/4th of all the fly balls he allowed turned into homers. In case there's any doubt in your mind, yes, that is unspeakable, almost unfathomable, and certainly unrepeatable. Consider as well his solid peripherals (7.84 K/9 and 3.05 BB/9), not to mention a decent 40.3% ground ball rate, and there's significant reason to hope for a major improvement from him in 2015.
The Free Agents
Luhnow did most of his remodeling with free agent signings, inking former Astros Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, as well as former UH Cougar Jesse Crain, to contracts that totaled $8.45 million, or 16.7% of the Astros' total Opening Day payroll. While no roles were set before the season started, it was assumed that Crain would be closing, with Qualls setting up in the eighth and Albers in the seventh.
Problems began to pop up early though; Crain, who had undergone some surgery early in the off-season, was setback by a calf strain in Spring Training, and then he continued to have issues recovering from his surgery. This issues would persist to the point that he was finally moved to the 60-day disabled list, and the season ended without him ever throwing a pitch for the team.
Albers, too, had his season torpedoed by the injury bug; after having pitched just ten innings, he was forced to the DL with shoulder tendonitis, an ailment that would eventually land him on the 60-day as well, and his season was over, too.
Fortunately for the Astros, Chad Qualls, the elder statesman in the bullpen and, in fact, the entire team, came to camp healthy and made it until the final month of the season before some minor hip soreness caused him to miss a little time, more as a precaution by a team out of the races than an indication of a serious injury. He established himself early as a very good closer, using his power sinker to post a sterling 57.2% ground ball rate, second only to Jake Buchanan among Astros relievers (Samuel Deduno was also better, but in less than 10 innings). His 8.60 K/BB ratio was the highest mark on the team by a landslide, and only two relievers who threw at least 20 innings in the Majors this year did better (Sean Doolittle and Koji Uehara).
As is often the case with relievers, the small sample can be deceiving; though Qualls finished the year with a 3.33 ERA, which is decent but unspectacular for a reliever, he was largely untouchable all year. Against the Oakland Athletics, Qualls allowed 12 of the 19 earned runs he allowed all season; his ERA against Oakland was 27.00, and against all other opponents, it was just 1.33. Four of his six blown saves came against Oakland (the other two against Arizona and Cleveland); he was 19-for-21 in save opportunities (90.5%) against all opponents other than Oakland.
And then there was Jerome Williams, a name which may bring back some bad, bad memories for some of you. He was inked for $2.1 million during the off-season, with the hope that he could work out of the pen and provide stability, and perhaps even work himself into the rotation. If nothing else, he was healthy, tossing 47.2 innings of relief work for the club, and though the numbers indicate that luck was against him, he simply blew far too many leads and was eventually let go of.
The Trade Acquisition
The Astros also swung a few minor deals to help shore up the bullpen before the year started. They swapped their first-overall Rule 5 draft pick for Anthony Bass; Bass came from San Diego, who received Patrick Schuster with our pick. Though Bass had shown some success in years when he more frequently used his change-up, his season, too, was unfortunately ruined by injuries; he pitched for the first month and a half, roughly, but then went down with a ribcage strain. Though he attempted to come back in July, he wasn't able to regain his effectiveness, and his season sputtered to an end.
Things were looking bleak early on; of the four arms Luhnow acquired during the off-season, only Qualls was still on the active roster in mid-June, and Crain had never even thrown a pitch for the club.
The Scrap Heap Diamonds
With the injuries to Albers and Crain, not to mention Bass, causing some serious problems to the pre-season bullpen game plan, the Astros were forced to look outside the organization for some men to plug in, but what they found and what it cost them to get these men borders on robbery.
First, the Astros noticed that Tony Sipp was traveling around with El Paso, the AAA club affiliated with San Diego, who were playing all road games while their new park was being build in the western tip of Texas. Understandably unhappy with the conditions, Sipp asked the Padres to release him, to which they obliged. The Astros swooped in and landed Sipp with a mere $500,000 contract. Performance bonuses would eventually raise that figure to $650,000, but Sipp was still wildly underpaid, considering the performance Houston got out of him; a 3.38 ERA and an 11.19 K/9, second only to Fields on the club. Sipp got lefties out initially, but soon proved himself capable of working whole innings, and indeed multiple innings at times, and even filled in as a closer on occasion when needed. It would not be a stretch to say he helped saved the Astros bullpen which would have otherwise been doomed by injuries.
A month and a half later, in mid-June, the Cubs made a mistake; soured on Jose Veras after his injury-hampered debut didn't go as planned, they chose to designate him for assignment and then release him. A free agent once more, he quickly resigned with Houston, one year after closing for the team before being traded to Detroit at the deadline. As expected, he got healthy and the bad luck in his numbers normalized, allowing him to post a 3.03 ERA and 2.31 K/BB ratio for the team in 32.2 innings of valuable work. The price the Astros had to pay for his services? A mere minor league contract.
The Debuting Prospects
The big name bullpen call up was Michael Foltynewicz, who joined the club just after the trade deadline. In a small sample, he showed a flash or two of his potential, but also some warts, occasionally losing command of the strike zone, and failing to generate ground balls or strike outs at the rate he did in the minor league, and he owned a 5.30 ERA once it was all said and done. The latter two are likely to improve, but the strike zone command will determine his future.
Less fan fair accompanied the arrival of Jake Buchanan, a ground ball maven who first arrived to make a spot start in late June. After that and one more outing, he was sent back to AAA until being recalled again a month later, and would remain with the club the rest of the season. He made just one other start during the year, working largely out of the bullpen as the mop-up man. His splits show his effectiveness; while his overall numbers don't look pretty thanks to those two starts, as a reliever, he posted a 3.46 ERA and a 59.3% ground ball rate, the best rate of any reliever, better even than Chad Qualls. Considering his ground ball ways, he'll likely give up fewer home runs in the future, which was his bane this year, and his walk rate could also improve (though at 3.12 BB/9, it was far from problematic). Buchanan made a solid statement for himself; expect him to have the inside track for the long-man role heading into Spring Training next year.
Other relievers came and went, either from outside the organization, or from AAA, during the course of the season. None of them made much of an impact, and are thus relegated to this section.
Remember that Kyle Farnsworth was a member of this team at one point? He ended up tossing just 11.2 innings for the club before being dismissed, and killed himself with walks. It's a shame he couldn't have tightened that up, though; his velocity had rebounded, and his BAbip indicated some harsh luck in that small sample.
Paul Clemens was recalled and demoted more times than I can count, but was at no point and effective member of the relief corps. He managed just a 5.84 ERA in his various stints, posting some of the worst peripherals on the club (5.84 K/9 and 4.74 BB/9).
Though David Martinez pitched just seven total innings for the club, there were some positives to take away. His 7.71 K/9 and 2.57 BB/9 were encouraging, and his inflated ERA was largely due to an unsustainably-low strand rate; his xFIP of 3.69 brings some hope of future value.
In all, 20 men tossed at least a third of an inning for the club. The others who were not mentioned in this piece: Raul Valdes, Jorge De Leon, Samuel Deduno, Jose Cisnero and Brad Peacock. These five men combined to soak up 30 innings in relief for the club.
Were we to grade the Astros' efforts to rebuild the bullpen this year, it seems that, overall, you'd have to look favorably upon the situation. No one could have predicted that Crain, Albers and Bass would provide a combined total of just 37 innings of work for the club. And when that happened? Luhnow went out and unearthed some gold, picking up Sipp and Veras for peanuts. Imagine what could have been if the bullpen had consisted, for a large chunk of the year, of Crain, Qualls, Albers, Bass, Sipp, Veras and Buchanan. Then throw in the improved Chapman from the second half.
Considering the dumpster fire from 2013, this season looked a lot better, even if the numbers on the surface don't say so.
Speaking of Numbers...
The Astros pen had a collective ERA of 4.80, which was the worst in baseball. Their xFIP, however, was 3.90, nearly a full run better, and better than five other teams, one of them being the playoff-bound Tigers (3.96).
For all the focus on ground balls in this organization, the bullpen didn't follow suit this year; their combined 43.2% ground ball rate was just 21st out of 30 teams. The White Sox and Orioles were the kings, both them having bullpen ground ball rates over 50%. The Orioles might have had the most "Astro-esque" bullpen this year, with a ground ball rate of 50.1% (2nd best) and a K/BB ratio of 2.80 (11th best).
The Astros' bullpen once again didn't look good in converting saves; their 31 saves was tied for the second-worst mark in the Majors, and their 25 blown saves was also second-worst (the Rockies were the worst in both categories). Interestingly, the team that tied with the Astros for second-to-last in saves was Oakland.