If I could only utilize one term to describe the Astros bullpen in 2020, it was fool’s gold. Although there were some promising performances — particularly late in the season into the postseason — the relief corps in Houston had some major flaws. For example, a 12.4 percent walk rate in the regular season, which tied the Mariners for the second-highest mark in baseball. Only the Mets at 12.6 percent had a higher “free pass” rate. That’s not good no matter how you’d try to analyze it.
To be fair, the unit did mainly consist of rookies for the majority of the season. Through a combination of injuries (Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly), the COVID-19 pandemic (Joe Smith), and losses from the previous offseason (Will Harris, Hector Rondon), the Astros saw what was once a strength in pitching depth loaded with experience become a liability. It would be too unfair to blame all of the rookies who had to shoulder a load that they — or the club — weren’t expecting just ten months ago.
Although Houston has multiple positions to address in this offseason, one of the more vital spots is obviously the bullpen. General manager James Click does seem intent on fortifying the relief corps as the offseason progresses. Dusty Baker recently confirmed that much in an interview with Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. In fact, Jeff Passan at ESPN noted how the Astros, along with other clubs like the Dodgers, are showing interest in former A’s closer Liam Hendriks.
On paper adding a pitcher with Hendriks ilk would only help the Astros. Not only has the Australian native arguably transformed into the best closer in baseball during the past two seasons — 1.66 ERA and 5.2 fWAR — the 2020 AL Reliever of the Year also has one of the lowest walk rates during that time at 5.3 percent. He has also struck out 38.4 percent of the batters he has faced since the start of 2019. For someone who had to frequently watch the Astros bullpen walk batter after batter in this already miserable year, it is obvious to see where Hendriks would immediately help.
The 31-year old right-hander relies primarily on a four-seam and slider combination about 93 percent of the time. There are instances where he will throw a curveball, particularly when ahead in the count. His fastball ranks in the 87th percentile in velocity with an average velocity of 96.4 MPH and 85th percentile in spin rate. There are no indications that his velocity took enough of a hit for it to become a concern in 2021.
From a purely on-the-field perspective based on his recent two-year performance, Hendriks would fit in well with the Astros. Although there are concerns about a shortened season when it comes to analyzing players, Hendriks only showed that his upward trajectory in 2019 wasn’t a fluke.
However, there are questions about whether signing the former A’s closer is feasible for Houston. First, it all comes down to money. With teams claiming that the ongoing pandemic had a severe impact on their overall revenue, it is going to be even more difficult for players in free agency to sign for their true worth. All signs point to a depressed market for a lot of players, especially relievers. Hendriks may have a figure in his mind about his worth to a team, but interested clubs are likely to play hardball, even if the player in question is one of the best at his respective position. The Astros are roughly $37 million below the $210 million threshold for tax purposes, so it remains to be seen how much they’d be willing to offer a pitcher like Hendriks. Don’t forget that Click has to address the two-thirds of his starting outfield, the rotation, and backup catcher at some point this winter. Also, I am not sure how much money the Astros are willing to spend to sign a reliever who will be 32-years old by Opening Day. As we all know, relievers are kind of a volatile group based on season-by-season performance. There is risk involved anytime a reliever signs a lucrative contract. We were all reminded of that truth when Tony Sipp signed his three-year, $18 million contract just over five years ago.
Plus, Hendriks was fairly vocal about taking out the Astros in the postseason. That kind of talk is common when division rivals meet in the postseason — see the Astros-Cardinals in the mid-2000’s — and it isn’t a surprise teams talk a little smack about each other. But I would be remiss not to mention the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal along with the on-field confrontation between A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano and Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron in the regular season. Needless to say, there is some bad blood between the two clubs in Houston and Oakland. Money is the vital component in any negotiation but if the money is close, I don’t know if Hendriks would choose a former division rival than say a team like the Dodgers. It is just something to keep in mind.
The case to add Hendriks is self-explanatory at this point. Any club would benefit from having him as their closer. There are risks involved, sure, but it is worth exploring whether a two- to a three-year contract for $12 million per season would get the job done. The Astros are likely to shed more salary following the 2021 season, so that kind of money spread out over the next two to three seasons ought not to act as a deterrent for a serious suitor.