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Wanted: Relief Pitcher for Houston Astros, Experience Preferred.

With numerous pitchers from last year leaving the staff, the Hot Stove was supposed to bring relief. So far none. Who will fill the bullpen shoes?

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros won 103 games last year, mostly on the strength of historically good pitching, both starting and relief. But although the mainstays of the staff, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, will be back for 2019, in the next echelon there has been a mass exodus. All Star Charlie Morton signed with Tampa Bay, Dallas Keuchel and Tony Sipp remain on the free agent market, and Lance McCullers and Joe Smith will be injured next year, McCullers out for the entire season. Although there is still time to add pitchers, many of the candidates thought to be available through trade or free agency have already been moved, so some of us impatient Astros fans are starting to ask, “is this it?”

The chart below shows the innings pitched and fWAR for the departed pitchers. (there is still an outside chance Keuchel and/or Sipp could be signed but I will assume they are gone)

2018 Pitchers lost to Astros in 2019, innings pitched and fWAR

Pitcher Innings fWAR
Pitcher Innings fWAR
Keuchel 204.2 3.6
Morton 167 3.1
McCullers 128.1 2.5
Sipp 38.2 0.9
Smith 45.2 0.2
total 584.1 10.3

So as the chart reveals, that is over 548 innings and over 10 wins which the Astros would like to replace. Are there internal replacements?

This article will focus mainly on the bullpen. As it stands now, it seems the Astros do have internal options for replacing their three missing starters, although projections expect a fall off from them over last year’s crew. The three pitchers expected to assume most of the load are Collin McHugh, rookie Josh James, and Brad Peacock. Steamer projects McHugh to pitch 151 innings, with a 4.28 ERA and 1.7 WAR. (I think this is undervaluing McHugh greatly but since I am relying on Steamer in this article I will go with it) James is projected to pitch 128 innings, with a 3.96 ERA and 2 WAR, and Peacock 125 innings, a 4.09 ERA and 1.3 WAR. That leaves the starting rotation 95 innings short from last year, (499 - 404) and 4.2 wins short.

Presumably, they will get help from the minors, namely from one Forrest Whitley, which Steamer projects to pitch 92 innings, with a 4.58 ERA, and .7 WAR. So that accounts for the innings lost, but this crew is projected to come up 3.5 wins short. Since Steamer projects 3.5 less wins from Verlander and Cole combined, according to these projections the starting pitching will produce 7 less wins in 2019 than in 2018.

But I promised that this article was about the bullpen. Notice that to fill the missing shoes in the rotation I removed the two most prolific relievers from the bullpen. The following chart shows the missing innings and WAR caused by the departures from the bullpen.

Innings and WAR lost to the 2019 Astros bullpen from 2018

Pitcher Innings fWAR
Pitcher Innings fWAR
McHugh 72.1 1.4
Peacock 65 0.7
Sipp 38.2 0.9
Smith 45.2 0.2
total 221.2 3.2

These pitchers accounted for 221 innings out of a bullpen total of 499 in 2018. And they accounted for 3.2 wins out of a bullpen total of 8.1.

As country and western legend George Jones once asked, “Who’s gonna fill those shoes?”

Indeed. The following chart shows the number of innings pitched by Astros relief pitchers last year who will be in the bullpen this year, their WAR, and the projected innings pitched by the same pitchers and presumed internal replacements and their projected WAR.

Expected innings and WAR of returning and new relief pitchers

Pitcher Innings 2018 WAR 2018 innings 2019 WAR 2019
Pitcher Innings 2018 WAR 2018 innings 2019 WAR 2019
Rondon 59.1 1.3 55 0.5
Harris 56.2 1.2 55 0.5
Pressly 23.1 1 65 0.8
Giles 30.2 0.7 0 0
Osuna 22.2 0.6 65 0.8
Devenski 45.1 0.1 40 0.3
Valdez 12.2 0 45 0.5
Perez 11.1 -0.1 45 0.2
Deetz 3.1 -0.1 25 0
Guduan 3.1 0 20 0.2
James 7.2 0.1 0 0
Bukauskas 0 0 28 0.2
Total 276.1 4.8 443 4

We said before the departure of McHugh, Peacock, Smith and Sipp from the bullpen would cost the pen 221 innings and 3.2 wins. Did increased expected production from Pressly, Osuna and five rookies make up for this deficit. The remaining bullpen pitchers from last year except the four that will be missing this year threw 276 innings last year adding 4.8 wins. The projected crew for 2019 including internal replacements is expected to pitch 443 innings and add 4 wins. That is 166.2 innings more than the same group last year, but .8 less wins.

However, we said the 2019 bullpen needed to replace 221 innings, so we still need to find 55 innings, and we are already relying on five bullpen rookies and one rookie starter. Who’s gonna fill those shoes?

Joe Smith might get 10 or 15 innings after he comes back. Maybe Whitley pushes someone back into the bullpen, although even with Whitley we haven’t fully replaced the starter innings from last year, because I did not count spot starts from outside the Big 5. Steamer thinks Brendan McCurry might pitch 15 innings. Man, we were already scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Rogelio Armenteros is projected for about nine innings, but I see him more likely as a fill in starter, and Corbin Martin is considered still another year away.

I am not as big a fan of projection services as many other people on this site. For one, they have a pretty broad margin of error. Two, sometimes they are just way wrong. And in this article we are relying on them to project rookies, and that is especially treacherous territory. That said, on average the projections are better than most people’s gut feeling, so the Steamer projections used here are the best look forward we have for now.

Which is bad news. The starting six pitchers projected for next year are predicted to win 7 less games than the starting five from last year. The bullpen is projected to win four less games. (8.1 in 2018 - 4 projected 2019 = 4.1) That’s eleven less wins. Calculated another way, the entire Astros staff contributed 30.6 WAR in 2018. All the pitchers projected for 2019 are predicted to total 19.3 WAR. That’s one less win than the 2017 squad, world champions, yes, but only due to other worldly hitting, and the late and other worldly arrival of Justin Verlander.

Yes, I know Wins Above Replacement is not an exact science either, but all else equal, roughly speaking, if the Astros don’t get pitching help they will win 92 games next year. I don’t think that gets you into the playoffs. And I’m not even taking into account that last year’s staff was remarkably injury free for the most part. Maybe they aren’t so lucky this year.

Of course, all else is not equal. Almost everyone on last year’s team under performed offensively compared to career averages so maybe there is a jump in offensive production. Michael Brantley should add some wins. And by run differential the Astros should have won 109 games last year, so maybe this year they will catch some breaks.

My guess is that Jeff Luhnow does not trust in that rosy scenario. The Astros need pitching.