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With the Astros’ bullpen cratering, few immediate solutions exist

Patience will be needed.

Oakland Athletics v. Houston Astros Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Astros’ six-game winning streak of more than a week ago is no more. Their bullpen blew leads on three separate occasions last week. These instances are unavoidable, as even the game’s most effective bullpens can falter, but it’s the nature in which the Astros have lost recent games that’s fairly concerning. Key relievers have turned in particularly ugly outings as of late.

Ryne Stanek, who has been the bridge to closer Ryan Pressly for most of the season, could not find the strike zone last Tuesday night against the A’s and helped propel them to victory. For the month of May, Stanek has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11 to 10. The ratio was 18 to 4 in April. Fittingly, his ERA in April was 2.19, whereas it’s 5.87 in May.

Stanek has a history of having enigmatic control. His first month and a half in Houston illustrates that unfortunate fact. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back the other way in June.

Coming into the season, Enoli Paredes was a lock to pitch high-leverage innings. A vital member of last year’s injury-laden relief staff, Paredes has completely lost his control in 2021. Walking 10 in only 3.1 innings is concerning enough, but what’s been lost about Paredes since he debuted last year is the lack of elite velocity.

In the minors, he purportedly sat in the upper-90s and had even touched triple digits. 95.7 and 95.2 mph, his average velo for 2020 and 2021, respectively, are fine marks, but it doesn’t quite qualify as “effectively wild” velocity, and unless Paredes develops proficient control, effectively wild might be his optimal profile. To fit the bill, he’ll need to either improve his control markedly or throw harder.

Speaking of proficient control, it appears Andre Scrubb could be in the process of acquiring it. He’s finding the zone more and has lowered his walk rate to below 10 percent, albeit in just 10 innings. At the same time, however, the Astros’ righty has been teed up routinely this year, resulting in a barrel rate that’s roughly twice the league average.

This is peculiar since Scrubb’s 2020 batted ball data was outstanding. He was in the Top 1 percent in hard-hit rate and in the Top 10 percent in both barrel rate and Expected Slugging (xSLG).

On Saturday against the Rangers, he was taken deep by scorching-hot rookie Adolis García. That’s not especially disconcerting, but what is is the fact that Khris Davis, a hitter who has been utterly lost at the plate for some time now, then barreled up Scrubb and laced a double. He would eventually score. It was two of the five runs that the Rangers would score in the 7th, which secured the win for them.

The once-reliable Joe Smith has been anything but. He’s regressed in just about every respect, and at age 37, it’s not easy to be optimistic about a return to form.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as enticing as it might be to feel that way.

Pressly’s continued to pitch at an extremely high level and figures to be an Astros representative in Colorado later this summer. Additionally, Brooks Raley’s been a quality southpaw out of the ‘pen. His inflated 6.52 ERA is all but guaranteed to fall substantially, as he’s missing bats and inducing abysmal contact while limiting the amount of free passes.

Even Bryan Abreu looks to be taking tangible steps toward becoming a viable late-inning reliever. There’s still work to be done, but considering the low-ish preseason expectations, it’s been a relatively promising start to the season for him. Having said that, it’s telling that the Astros have had to rely on Abreu in high-leverage situations. This could soon change with reinforcements on the way in the form of starters Framber Valdez, Jake Odorizzi and José Urquidy. Their return will presumably leave at least one, if not two members of the current rotation as the odd men out

It’s expected that either Luis García or Cristian Javier will make the move, and in time it could be both. Each has the stuff to start and profile quite well in one or two-inning stints.

The Rays paid a high price for two relievers in their recent trade with the Brewers, possibly setting a steep market on the trade front. In the minors, the Astros have intriguing arms, but arguably none with the ability to immediately step in to high-leverage spots in a big-league game.

Ultimately, getting healthy may be the only answer to the Astros’ bullpen woes. The lingering question will be if they can stay that way.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant