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The Astros Should Find Relievers, Not Aim To Buy

MLB: OCT 01 Astros at Diamondbacks Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is so much quality baseball content nowadays that it is hard to squeeze all of your reading into a single day. Or a couple of days. Heck, sometimes even within a week or two. Personally, if I don’t have time at that moment, I copy the URL link and add it to my queue for future reading. An article that I find interesting today will likely remain so in, say, March. I only somewhat exaggerate about the timeline.

But there are instances when someone’s material will become a higher priority whenever there is a free moment. FanGraphs is a favorite. Various authors at Baseball Prospectus. The occasional post from MLB.com, especially if something cool with Statcast is involved. Captivating topics from PitcherList. I have multiple articles to catch up on from TCB. I could go on and on. If my schedule — kids, home maintenance, and my regular job — allows me the time to read it that same day or that week, I’ll make it a point to do it. With that said, there is usually one publication that nearly always occupies one of the top spots in my queue: Joe Sheehan’s newsletter.

As I was reading Sheehan’s recent notes about the NL Central, there was one line that particularly stood out to me and its potential application to the Astros. I mean, the line below basically applies to every team out there, but you get the point.

“Relievers, in today’s game, are common talents. You don’t need to buy them, you just need to find them.”

It is no secret that the Astros have a couple of holes on the roster to fill. One area of concern is the bullpen, especially the middle innings where the depth chart has taken a hit, with Phil Maton, Héctor Neris, and Ryne Stanek all becoming free agents. While Ryan Pressly and Bryan are a formidable duo at the backend, those departures have created a void in depth. It is one thing to have top-level talent at key positions, it is another to have the depth in place to properly support it.

But with payroll already tight — possibly exceeding the first threshold for a second time in franchise history in 2024 — Dana Brown will need to be creative about how he fills these openings with limited dollars to spend. He already has to some extent, as early as September when he claimed lefty Bennett Sousa off waivers from the Tigers. This offseason, Brown has also claimed another reliever, right-hander Oliver Ortega, off waivers from the Tigers and signed free agents Kervin Castro and Luis Contreras. Per Astros Future, Contreras was drawn to Houston, the first organization to contact him, following his departure from the Brewers.

On an individual basis, these transactions don’t appear like much, especially under the shadow of who is possibly leaving the Astros. Together, however, it has become clear that Brown is hedging his bets by acquiring multiple intriguing arms that not only add depth to the overall system but could also develop into something at the major league level. Quantity with the promise of quality. The trio of offseason acquisitions — Ortega, Castro, and Contreras — also have something in common: Promising fastballs with ride. You know, the type of fastball that the Astros have long prioritized. Even Sousa, following his arrival into the organization back in September, found his fastball location inching higher into the upper regions of the strike zone during his brief yet impressive audition to finish the season.

Again, with seemingly limited spending room, Brown can’t afford to make the same mistake that this organization did last year when Jim Crane and Jeff Bagwell were essentially calling the shots: Sign a middle reliever to an ill-advised contract, à la Rafael Montero’s three-year, $30 million deal from November 2022. Montero’s contract is one reason the Astros don’t have much wiggle room this offseason, especially if Crane wants to avoid or minimize the tax as much as possible. One way to address needs on the roster, especially in the bullpen, with limited financial resources is to do exactly what Brown has done thus far: Scour the waiver wire and free agency to find value for relatively cheap. Sousa, Ortega, Castro, and Contreras may not hit as major leaguers, but there is potential with minimal cost involved, something the Astros should prioritize right now.

With that said, I believe Houston will try to sign at least one major league-caliber reliever and possibly trade for another, with Jake Meyers as the possible price in a trade. But it is more of a situation about waiting out the market and seeing what develops in the coming weeks. While there is some consternation among the fanbase about the Astros not being involved with prominent free agents, the simple reality is that they don’t intend to under these current financial obligations. Even if Crane is willing to exceed the first tax threshold, the organization isn’t likely to pursue any of the top free-agent relievers, including Neris. Instead, Brown will have to continue looking to improve on the margins with the hope that one or two of those additions convert into quality major league arms. And I don’t think the Astros, with their reputation, need to spend large amounts of money to beef up the bullpen. Talent is out there to find, as Sheehan noted. The organization has a positive track record of developing quality arms seemingly out of nowhere. It is time to see if Brown can do the same as his two predecessors did.