In yesterday’s game against the Rangers, the Astros, down one run in the eighth inning, turned to rookie relievers Parker Mushinski and Ronel Blanco. Dusty Baker had little choice, as the bullpen had been exhausted in recent games.
But not the entire bullpen. Not Pedro Báez, who hasn’t made an appearance since April 19.
The veteran righty remained in the bullpen as Mushinski and Blanco allowed three runs combined, sealing the Rangers’ 6-2 victory.
When the Astros signed Báez to a 2-year, $12.5 million deal in January 2021, it made sense. The ex-Dodgers hurler had been one of baseball’s most consistent relievers since debuting in 2014, amassing 356 innings across 7 seasons in Los Angeles, finishing his tenure there with a fairly remarkable 3.03 ERA (3.61 FIP).
Though he was on the wrong side of 30, there weren’t any clear warning signs that hinted of a steep decline in velocity. Were it not for a shoulder injury he suffered shortly before the 2021 season, the 34-year-old Báez might still possess his old mid-90s velo today.
But that’s not reality.
Following an extensive stay on the IL due to the prolonged shoulder issue, Báez averaged just 90.4 mph with his fastball late last year in limited action. Through three appearances so far in 2022, that figure has dipped below 90 — following an ostensibly healthy offseason, including three spring training outings.
Based on what happened last night — or rather, what didn’t happen — it appears Báez is the low man on the totem pole. In a high-leverage situation late in the game, he was passed up by not one, but two rookies.
The most damning part about it? Baker probably made the right call.
Given his substantial loss of velocity (over 4 mph since 2020), there’s little reason to believe in Báez, who has allowed 6 runs (3 earned) in 2 1⁄3 innings this season while walking more batters (3) than he’s struck out (2), replicating his spring training strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Though Báez is armed with two secondary pitches in a changeup and slider that have been effective in years past, it’s unknown how viable they are with a 90 mph fastball.
There is a case to be made that Báez could still be a decent reliever because of his changeup and slider — the poor velo notwithstanding — but the problem is that when he has pitched, he has looked thoroughly unimpressive. (Just look at this.)
An even bigger problem is that the club is not exactly in a position to ‘wait and see.’ Because of MLB’s lockout and its subsequent rushed spring training, the league agreed to give teams expanded rosters until May 2, at which point the number would drop from 28 to the traditional 26.
That deadline is now less than a week away.
Given what’s transpired this season — particularly last night — it would be fairly surprising to still see Báez listed on the Astros roster next Tuesday.
It’s not impossible that James Click and Co. still view Báez as a competent arm despite the lack of velocity, and that his sparse usage this year merely stems from differing viewpoints between the front office and Baker — it wouldn’t be the first time — but what’s more likely is that both parties just don’t have faith in their $12.5 million man. They wouldn’t be alone — in-season projections from ZiPS and Steamer do not foresee Báez providing any value.
It’s highly bizarre and awfully telling that with the game on the line, an old-school manager like Baker trusted two unproven rookies more than a rested veteran.
Designating Báez for assignment would free up a spot on the organization’s 40-man roster, ideally making room for an external upgrade — there are still a few notable free-agent arms available, namely Trevor Rosenthal and Yusmeiro Petit — although such a signing could prove somewhat tricky with the impending roster reduction.
But even without the addition of another veteran reliever, it’s difficult to envision the Astros keeping Báez on the active roster after it’s slashed by two. Not after the club overtly displayed a clear lack of confidence in him last night.