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Three Relievers to Track in Spring Training

While the backend of the bullpen is already in place, there are pitchers on the fringe of the roster worth tracking.

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As currently situated, the Astros figure to have the heart of their bullpen already in place. Ryan Pressly is undeniably the club’s best reliever with Ryne Stanek, Héctor Neris, and Phil Maton in key supporting roles. While it may not be the best grouping of relievers in baseball, one could also do far worse. It could also be better depending on how their secondary group of relievers perform.

By projected WAR at FanGraphs, Houston’s relief corps is projected to post a 3.1 fWAR with a 3.76 ERA/4.03 FIP in 2022. Pressly alone accounts for 1.7 wins if that total with Stanek, Neris, and Maton contributing about one win combined. Only two pitchers — Rafael Montero and Jake Odorizzi — are projected to provide any additional positive value at 0.1 wins a piece. This breakdown of projections isn’t much of a surprise for units closer to the middle of the pack than the top. Alas, this bullpen feels a bit top heavy and will need additional contributions to likely make it a full season. There was a reason why James Click acquired three relievers at the deadline last season, and that reason still exists today.

Signing a pitcher like Colin McHugh and/or Andrew Chafin this offseason could’ve gone a long way. For now, however, the Astros are banking on improvement from within as there are intriguing arms worth monitoring in camp.

Name to Watch #1: Josh James

Once viewed as a potential building block in the bullpen, Josh James has seen his stock fallen in each subsequent season. Part of that sentiment is attributed to his performance, which has gradually worsened. Following that impressive debut in 2018 (2.35 ERA, 3.51 FIP in 23 innings), the right-handed flamethrower’s has struggled with climbing walk rates and declining velocity. Not a good combination for any pitcher.

Injuries, however, are at least partially responsible for his troubles. Between the pandemic and recovery from a hip injury, James went from throwing a combined 84 13 innings from 2018-19 to only 21 13 in 2020-21. To say he has become a bit of a forgotten pitcher in the eyes of most fans is probably a reasonable take. But if a healthy James can regain some of his velocity and keep the walks at a manageable rate for him (below 10 percent), he could play a key role in the bullpen this season. After all, he’s only 29 and could provide much needed depth to a roster needing it.

Name to Watch #2: Enoli Paredes

When I think about Enoli Paredes, it’s always centered around his control. In appearances when he’s allowed zero walks, Paredes has only allowed an earned run or more in two of those instances. Unfortunately, he’s allowed at least one walk in 19 of his 34 major league appearances dating back to 2020.

The struggle to command his pitches well in addition to a shoulder injury were the reasons why he didn’t make another major league appearance after June 10. This inconsistency was still present in minors as he accumulated 20 walks in 27 13 innings. But the glimpses he showed in 2020 are still relatively fresh and if he can improve his control, he could be a viable option in a major league bullpen.

Name to Watch #3: Pedro Báez

One of Click’s signings last offseason, Pedro Báez’s 2021 season was defined by COVID-19, a troublesome shoulder injury, and decreased velocity. In fact, his four-seam averaged out to 90.8 miles per hour compared to 94.4 miles per hour in 2020 with the Dodgers. It is no wonder why he only appeared in four games last season. While his declining velocity in prior seasons were a noted concern at the time of signing, a steep decrease wasn’t expected. Needless to say, this move hasn’t worked out yet.

The issue at hand with Báez, and it may have contributed to the club’s reluctance to spend on this year’s free-agent relievers, was the $6.3 million in average annual value in his contract. While it’s hardly a hinderance in light of increasing tax thresholds, the Astros likely want to see what Báez could contribute before changing course. The ultimate hope in a bounce back lies in a healthy camp with improved velocity for the veteran reliever. If that is indeed the case, put Báez’s name in the conversation for an increased role.