HOUSTON - MAY 24: Pitcher Wilton Lopez #59 of the Houston Astros pumps his fist after getting out of a jam in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park on May 24, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Jeff Luhnow has yet to display a fixation for acquiring relievers. Give him time...
If you missed it the Houston Astros traded away 2011 closer Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. While this now means they have a competent shortstop to replace filler Angel Sanchez, it also leaves a gaping hole at the back of the bullpen.
Jeff Luhnow understood this when he made the trade, calculating that a team that projects to win around 50 games does not need a closer. Though it would be sure nice to have one. Melancon was one of the few bright spots in a catastrophic bullpen last year, putting up a 2.78 ERA, but also blowing a few horrific games (the Brian McCann game it Atlanta springs to mind).
The Astros started the 2011 season with the second-youngest bullpen in the majors behind the Royals, and this was only skewed by the inclusion of elders Brandon Lyon and Jeff Fulchino, the former who was injured for most of the season and the latter, who was cut half-way through.
Lyon will return for 2012 and see out the final year of his three-year $16.5m contract, while Wilton Lopez, Sergio Escalona, Enerio Del Rosario, Fernando Rodriguez and David Carpenter are all young and decent arms.
Considering the Astros only won 56 games, the blown save total of 25 looks very large, the same as the Braves, Blue Jays and Angels. Only two teams, the Nationals and Cardinals blew more saves in 2011. Ponder too the fact they only had 25 saves (20 of which Melancon locked down), and you have a bullpen that had a 50% save conversion rate. No other team came close. They were not especially overtaxed, as they ranked 16th overall in the majors in innings pitched as a unit with 471 IP, but having Aneury Rodriguez taking one of the seven spots for the entire season cannot have helped.
Perhaps Lyon returns to form in 2012 (ha!), and perhaps this unit looks less shakey than it did last year, but if I were Jeff Luhnow I might just have a glance at a reliever whose stock is low at the moment and might rebound in time for the July trade deadline. Brad Lidge, former Astros and Phillies closer signed a one-year deal with the Nationals for an undisclosed amount (around $1m). On the other side of the scale Francisco Cordero signed a $4.5m contract with the Blue Jays.
Could Mike Gonzalez therefore, be a good fit for the Astros, listed by SI as one of the top remaining free agents? Since leaving Pittsburgh, the reliever has never been particularly healthy, stumbling through Atlanta, Baltimore and Texas, averaging 41 innings a year over the last five seasons, which is not particularly impressive. He turns 34 in May and is a local kid from Passadena Texas. The Yankees are named as a fit, while the Rangers are rumoured to be trying to clear Koji Uehara and his $4m off the roster to make room for somebody. The only stumbling block would be the devil himself Scott Boras and Gonzalez may not want to take a drastic pay-cut, fresh off a two-year $12m deal. If he were to rebound with the Astros, he could be flipped at the deadline to a team desperate for bullpen help, just as Octavio Dotel is every season.
However, I would like to see Luhnow check in just to see what Boras is holding out for. If not we have got a ton of scrap arms on the cusp of the majors that we could possibly convert to relievers and getting the bullpen perfect is not too high on front office's list of priorities for 2012.