Today is the big day; by the early afternoon, we may be welcoming a new player to the Astros. Last week, I covered one of the big names on the relief market, Felipe Vázquez, but determined that he looked incredibly expensive. But I want to do a bit of a deeper look into that realm outside of the marquee star on the block.
After all, it certainly feels like the Astros could use some type of help in the bullpen as of late. The last month or two has been pretty rough, especially after such a strong start. In the month of July, the Astros are twentieth in Win Probability Added with -1.26. Even going back to the start of June, they’re still nineteenth in WPA (-0.79) and twenty-second in Fielding Independent Pitching (4.85).
On top of that, the starting pitching market has entered into something of a flux; the two big trades so far have been Marcus Stroman going to the Mets and Trevor Bauer going to the Reds, two teams that no one would have pegged as buyers a month a go. If the market for starters heats up, picking up one or two relievers might be the cheaper way to go.
But looking more closely at the Astros’ bullpen shows things might not be that easy. For instance, some of the roughest performances in recent memory have come from Roberto Osuna and Will Harris, who have still been two of the better performers on the whole year (and this isn’t even getting into Ryan Pressley, whose ERA the past month has outpaced his FIP by nearly 2.00 in the seeming definition of small sample size fluke). Waiting for them to hopefully return to normal would probably be the ideal course of option anyway, even if it weren’t extremely difficult to find better relievers in the first place. And of course, Collin McHugh’s return to the bullpen has gone swimmingly so far. That’s four slots that are fairly locked in. Given that Houston can only field eight relievers in the postseason, we’re already half way there.
What are our options for the other half of the bullpen? As is, four other pitchers have more than 30 innings: Josh James, Chris Devenski, Hector Rondon, and Framber Valdez. None of them has been fantastic (they’re all basically just a hair above league-average in FIP), and they comprised a bulk of the bullpen’s innings, which is probably why things have felt less than great right now. Of course, in the postseason, it’s easy to minimize the impact of a few bad pitchers; every series the Astros have played the last two years has seen at least two pitchers throw one or fewer innings, so even if none of them improve the rest of the way, including one or two of them isn’t necessarily a death sentence to the team’s chances.
Which is why it might just be best to let things play out. Maybe you don’t have faith in Rondon or Devenski to rebound the rest of the way; that doesn’t mean that the recently-returned Joe Smith or recently-called-up Jose Urquidy or Cy Sneed couldn’t easily usurp one of their roles by just being okay the rest of the way. Right now, there are seven players competing for four slots, two of which won’t likely see substantial playing time come October anyway.
There are two other x-factors here as well. The first is the relative dearth of strong options on the trade market. If you don’t believe me, just browse Fangraphs’ top relievers as an overview. If the Giants, Mets, Reds, and Nationals are all buying now (something that would have seemed shocking a few months ago, yet they all seem to be), there just are not many great relievers on selling teams to start with. Kirby Yates and Felipe Vázquez are great, but both would command a heavy return like I detailed last time. Ken Giles is probably a non-starter for Houston. Plenty of other options like Nick Anderson and Jose Leclerc have even more years of control left than Vázquez and will probably cost an arm and a leg themselves as a result. Jake Diekman and Chris Martin have already been traded and probably aren’t moving against so soon.
Really, if you’re going for an actually noticeable improvement, Ian Kennedy and Shane Greene are some of the only remaining options among the clear sellers. Kennedy is a complicated case given his large contract, so it’s harder to see exactly what a deal for him would look like, but there’s room for a team to work out something creative. Greene is probably the hottest commodity on the trade market, so bidding for him could be intense. I guess I wouldn’t be opposed to acquiring either of them on the right deal, but the Astros absolutely don’t need both of them.
The other factor, though, is Brad Peacock. Trading for any starter likely bumps him to the playoff bullpen, where he’s proven more than capable in the past, and like McHugh, he could provide yet another reliable arm come October. If he becomes an almost-sure thing for the October bullpen, that means we’re essentially down to seven or so pitchers fighting for three spots, and with the two least effective pitchers from the eventual bullpen getting extremely minimal usage anyway. In effect, acquiring a solid fourth starter also gives the Astros an extra solid bullpen arm for the postseason.
The remaining options are already so limited that this seems like far and away the best choice. Maybe the Royals become desperate to offload Kennedy or something, in which case, adding him could become a bargain. But with the number of options already present, being able to mix and match the best pitchers into an effective October relief corps from what’s present seems fairly doable, and even more so if Peacock is among the choices. All of that just adds even greater importance to the search for a starter.