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Are Bullpen Problems Brewing

How many times can you rely on the next man up?

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s Astros pitching was both a disaster and a miracle. It was a disaster because injuries befell the staff like falling dominoes. But it was a miracle because a myriad of rookies came forward, mostly from the depths of the minors, to save the team from a complete breakdown.

Who would have expected going into the 2020 season that guys named Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, Brooks Raley, or Luis Garcia would prove crucial in the Astros run-up to Game 7 of the ALCS.

Not that the Astros front office was totally confident that all these performers would duplicate their over-achievement of 2020. They knew Joe Smith would be back, and they went out and signed Ryne Stanek and Pedro Baez to bolster pitching depth.

The Astros are 6-3 as I write this, so no one is too worried about the Astros right now. However, early hot hitting is already beginning to regress, and pitching depth is already strained.

Pedro Baez missed Spring Training due to COVID. Trying to get back in shape too quickly after recovery, he strained his shoulder and is currently on IL.

At the end of a Spring Training season when he was looking very sharp, Andre Scrubb hurt his shoulder, and is also out indefinitely,

This week Enoli Paredes also left a game with a strain to his side, and is currently on IL. Perhaps this is good news in his case, as he was struggling mightily before, or perhaps, because of his injury. He has faced 12 batters this year, walked six of them, and allowed 2 hits.

So who’s left?

So far it looks like Ryne Stanek and Ryan Pressly are reliable. And Bryan Abreu has appeared to recover from his 2020 failure, at least when it comes to results. In 6.2 IP he has allowed only one run, three hits and one walk. His Statcast xERA is 1.52. But in 23 batters faced he has struck out only two, with a BABIP of .150. Advanced stats like xFIP and SIERA are not so optimistic about Abreu, both numbers over 5.00

Of the surprise relievers from 2020, only two are still pitching, lefties Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor. So far neither appears to be repeating the Cinderella performances they put in last year.

Raley has pitched four innings with an ERA of 11.25, Statcast xERA of 10.39, and an xFIP of 6.21. Out of 20 batters faced he has allowed six hits, two base on balls and a home run. A BABIP of .385 suggests some bad luck, but from watching him pitch it appears he cannot locate his pitches low, which would conform to suggestions that he has been battling back problems.

Blake Taylor has pitched 3.2 IP, allowing three earned runs, (four total) for an ERA of 7.36. Statcast expects an ERA of 3.59, but xFIP and SIERA have less kind projections, 6.62 and 5.69 respectively.

Out of 19 batters faced, Taylor has allowed five hits and two walks, with only two strikeouts and one homer allowed.

One of the questions going into 2021 was whether the surprising rookies of 2020 would repeat their performances. In a very short sample so far they have either not gotten to pitch, or have under-performed. One of the relievers that the Astros depended on when constructing this year’s staff was veteran Joe Smith.

So far, he looks like he’s throwing batting practice. In 3.1 IP Smith has allowed five earned runs for an ERA of 13.50. Out of 18 batters faced he’s allowed six hits, a homer, with only three strikeouts. Statcast xERA sits at 4.59, but xFIP is less kind at 5.83 but SIERA a little kinder at 3.96

Obviously we are dealing with very small samples and these performances could turn around. And the missing pieces will return....eventually, but with unpredictable results. But if these trends continue, and if injuries persist, who could be this year’s “next man up?”

Brandon Bielak has already flashed brilliance this year, throwing 4.1 perfect innings in his first appearance. But Saturday he faced seven batters, allowing two runs, with two hits and two walks. That’s the kind of inconsistency that got him sent back down in 2020.

When Jake Odorizzi and Cristian Javier are both ensconced in the rotation (Javier has been optioned temporarily to get his pitch count up) Luis Garcia figures to be sent to the bullpen given the injury situation.

How has Garcia performed so far as a starter? His one and only appearance was not encouraging, going 3.1 innings, allowing two runs. His 17 batters faced got four hits, three bases on balls, with only one K. His xERA sits at 7.72, 9.51 xFIP, and 8.54 SIERA.

Again, it’s only one appearance, but like the other 2020 rookies there isn’t a big sample from last year to suggest a better performance going forward, at least in the short term.

So who else could be the next man up if need be. Nivaldo Rodriguez is currently on the 26-man after posting a 6.23 ERA in 8.2 IP last year. Minor Leaguers Tyler Ivey and Kent Emanuel had strong Springs, and Pete Solomon is a highly regarded prospect who showed flashes this Spring as well.

At some point in the undetermined future Josh James and Austin Pruitt should return from IL as bullpen pieces, and hopefully starter Framber Valdez will return to bump one of the starters into the pen as well.

But for the next few weeks or even months bright warning signals are flashing from the bullpen. With a group of starters who seem to have trouble getting to the sixth or seventh innings, it looks like the Astros might have problems if they can only rely on Ryne Stanek and Ryan Pressly to close out games.