Do the Houston Astros have a bullpen problem?
In one sense, yes, absolutely. Closer Ken Giles has walked four batters and allowed four runs in four innings, losing one game and needlessly tightening another in two of his four appearances this season. Luke Gregerson has allowed six runs on three walks and two homers in his 5.1 IP for the team so far, all of those coming in a single appearance the game after Giles lost his game in the ninth, as the Royals teed off on him for a six-run eighth.
That’s the setup man and the closer both getting smacked around quite a bit, with middle reliever Jandel Gustave bringing up the rear with 3.2 putrid innings of his own, allowing more than a walk and a run an inning in his limited exposure so far.
In another sense, absolutely not. Giles is a talented young pitcher, one of the best strikeout artists in the game and likely heir to the “best closer in major league baseball” appellation for a year or two someday soon. He had a rough season last year and could definitely stand to work on both commanding and controlling his fastball, but the talent is all there.
Gregerson’s got a longer and less gaudy track record, and was the team’s primary closer for some time back in 2015, but while he could stand to be a lot better at preventing runs from scoring — his ERAs haven’t quite matched up with how good his peripherals say he should be since he’s come to Houston, which might indicate a problem with team defense more than with Gregerson himself. He’s not only a known quantity, but has only had one really bad outing this season.
His other five innings of work have been pretty much spotless. And while it would be unfortunate if Gustave struggled and didn’t turn into the young relief ace that Houston is hoping he’ll blossom into, he’s just one pitcher and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
There are reasons from the first 10 games to be hopeful about the Astros pen, too. Will Smith and Brad Peacock have been excellent to start the season, neither man having allowed a run so far. Last year’s breakout fireman-type reliever, Chris Devenski, has been excellent in the eight innings he’s pitched so far for the Astros — the most of anyone in the pen, and some of the highest leverage innings of the season: two four innings appearances, from the eighth through the 11th in a victory over Seattle, and from the ninth to the 12th against the Royals. Houston won both games.
The pen probably isn’t as big a concern as the rotation, anyway. Neither of journeymen struggling early, Charlie Morton or Mike Fiers, has the track records of success that Giles and Gregerson do, and while Joe Musgrove is still young and developing, he didn’t exactly blow anyone away in his time with the Astros last year.
Part of the problem here is the injury to Collin McHugh — that’s why Musgrove’s in the rotation right now to begin with — but the young depth after Musgrove is thin. David Paulino is also hurt. Brady Rodgers made his major league debut last year, giving up 14 runs in eight innings of work, and has not yet been brought back for a second outing.
And then there are actual prospects like Francis Marte, whose progression the Astros have a timetable for, and that timetable likely isn’t dependent on April injuries. Houston could try to turn Devenski back into a starter, but Devenski was bad as a starter and he’s been great as a reliever. Why mess with a good thing?
Moving forward, the biggest concern with the relievers across the board isn’t the late inning meltdowns at the back of the bullpen — though Kansas City and Seattle aren’t exactly powerhouses, and you’d hope your set-up man and closer wouldn’t be blowing games to them in the first week of the season.
The biggest concern is the walks: The bullpen as a whole, from Giles to Devenski and Gregerson to the longest-tenured guy in the Astros pen at four years, Tony Sipp, has walked 11.4 percent of the batters they’ve faced. To put that in perspective, that’s almost three percent higher than the average MLB bullpen last year (8.9 percent). That may not sound like much, but it’s a difference of between 60 and 70 walks over the course of a full season.
The good news for the Astros is that Houston will probably be fine, at least on this front — even if the guys currently in the pen can’t hack it, bullpen help is one of the easiest things to acquire at the deadline (if not the cheapest, in terms of talent going the other way).
But attention paid to bolster the bullpen as the season goes on is almost necessarily at the expense of improving the rotation. If Houston wants to be able to grab a big starting rotation arm at the deadline, it’d be best if it was the only arm they had to get.