Arms Race: The Astros Championship Puzzle and Deadline Reliever Fits

Arms Race: The Astros Championship Puzzle and Deadline Reliever Fits

The Houston Astros have solidified themselves as a frontrunner for the American League crown, and perhaps even a bigger piece of metal. They are atop the AL West, the offense is historically great, and the starting rotation, which was a question mark at best a few months ago, suddenly harbors seven arms that all deserve to start games at the highest level. The only thing to improve on at the deadline, realistically, is the bullpen. Myles Straw is fine, you absolute animals.

Some context for the bullpen’s struggles may be useful here. As a whole, the ‘pen has been a little bit closer to average than the train wreck that I see discussed. Still bad, to be clear. Year-to-date, they rank poorly, but not at the bottom in ERA- (104) and SIERA (4.03, good for 19th in the MLB). They’ve also been a little comically injury prone, again. Ryan Pressly, Brooks Raley, and Ryne Stanek are the only meaningful arms who have not gone on the IL so far. That’s not to say help is not needed – it definitely is. The Houston Astros do not have a championship bullpen as constructed. But it also might not be as far off as it seems. One shutdown piece could change a lot.

Cristian Javier moved into a relief role in early June. That seemed to have shored up the ranks considerably with his multi-inning shutdown performances, but Urquidy’s recent shoulder injury may muddle that strategy. Bryan Abreu and Enoli Paredes should be back soon, and this is a pro-Abreu platform. The woeful Astros bullpen ranks 6th best in the MLB in ERA, 8th in FIP, and 9h in SIERA for the month of June. Granted, the rotation hasn’t given them much chance to ruin our collective days, as Astros relievers have thrown the fourth-least innings in that span as well. Nobody would make the mistake of calling it a strength.

THE PUZZLE

The Astros are facing a 40-man roster logjam that may have some serious implications on their deadline strategy. A reliever trio of Josh James, Pedro Baez, and Austin Pruitt are all either on rehab assignments or nearing their rehab assignment from long injuries, with all three landed on the 60-day IL. That means all three of them have to be activated onto a 40-man roster than is currently filled up, presumably around the end of the all-star break. That might not be a problem immediately – Tyler Ivey and Forrest Whitley (both on the minor league 60 day IL) can be transferred to the Major League 60-day to free up two spots, but it would start the clock on their major league service time while they go on their long rehab processes. Not ideal. Ryan Hartman and Ralph Garza Jr would be DFA candidates for 40-man spots as well – not to mention any unforseen injuries between now and then (knock on wood). Trading somebody already on the 40-man in a package, whether it be Toro, a young reliever, or somebody like Freudis Nova mitigates the roster crunch headache, and prevents the Astros from needing to DFA a good player who will get picked up for free.

Additionally, Click and Company have the luxury tax to contend with. However you feel about treating the tax threshold as a cap, they have shown no desire to go over it for the second year in a row. They want to reset, in order to not pay repeater tax penalties. Going over would also have some free agency and draft implications: A repeater penalty would result in Carlos Correa’s probable free agency departure netting a fourth round comp pick, while staying under gives the Astros a second rounder instead. Finally, if they wish to ink a qualified free agent in the offseason, going over the tax would result in pick forfeitures in the second and fifth round of the 2022 draft – the first draft they could have a full selection of picks in two long years.

I say all of that not to say they shouldn’t go all in, pay a paltry extra tax $, and give up the capital to make the 2021 Astros as good as they can get – only to highlight the reasons they probably won’t. And while being “cheap” plays a part, some of those reasons have merit.

So, we are looking for a backend bullpen arm that is not making very much money (the Astros are almost within $1m of the tax line already) and probably have to trade somebody of value currently on the 40 man roster in order to make it happen. In theory, the Astros could attach prospects to a veteran contract if they need to shed salary. If it all sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. Let’s see who’s out there.

THE PIECES

Richard Rodriguez (PIT, RHP)

Jun 5, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Richard Rodriguez (48) pitches against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Rodriguez has been a solid-to-great reliever for a few years now, and over 30 innings of work in 2021 has established a real high leverage profile. He is probably the best reliever that will be made available this deadline. The 31 year old currently sports a 1.84 ERA with peripherals to back it up. RichGod nearly leads the league in BB% at 2.8%, which can reasonably be expected to correct back near to his career rate of 6.7%, still more than acceptable. He has not been hit hard all year, with a miniscule 3.8% barrel rate and 2.34 xERA. He does all of this with just two pitches, a high-spinning (up to 2600 RPM even after the substances ban) 4-seam fastball that averages 93 and plays up in the zone, and a devastating slider in the low 80s that he throws only 12.5% of the time (Clicking on colored text links to video highlights, to give a visual for what is being discussed).

Last year, Rodriguez was just as effective at preventing runs, although maybe in a different way. He threw his slider nearly twice as much as he has this year, and it resulted in an elite 36.6 K%. In 2021, he has been more about missing barrels with the fastball, and his strikeout production has dropped. If the Astros were to make a move for Rodriguez, I would expect they would immediately up his slider usage to 2020 levels, if not more. It is one of the more elite offerings in the game right now. Get him, have him throw the slider more to elevate the K%, and the Astros would have perhaps the best 8th and 9th inning combination in the league.

YearPitchBAxBASLGxSLGwOBAxwOBAEVLASpin (RPM)ExtensionWhiff%PutAway%
2021Slider.091.182.091.333.080.21884.3824906.844.0%23.8%
2020Slider.050.152.050.233.106.21583.2-224086.863.8%35.1%
Richard Rodriguez Slider Last Two Years from baseballsavant.com

Rodriguez is first on this list for the same reason acquiring him will be so difficult. This is not a struggling reliver with an elite pitch to work with. RichRod is an established closer in the league with cost control and a team-friendly contract (making $1.7m with arbitration raises based primarily on number of saves going forward) who will not be a free agent until 2024. It will take at least two top 30 prospects from the Astros depleted farm system to start the conversation, and the Pirates would be pretty reasonable to ask about a Freudis Nova or Colin Barber type in the return. The Pirates hold leverage here: There is minimal incentive for them to trade Rodriguez at this deadline when they could do so at the next one and net around the same value. There will be other teams interested. However, he is also 31 and having a career year if you combine the shortened season with the first half of 2021, so his value will never be higher than now. The Pirates are still a year or two away. Moving him makes a lot of sense.

Oz Ocampo left the Astros in 2019 to work for the Pirates, so there is a relationship between the two clubs when it comes to the Astros farm, as Ocampo himself was behind the international signings of Javier, Garcia, Urquidy, Jose Alberto Rivera, Bryan Abreu, the Yordan Alvarez trade, and more.

A prospect package of Nova, Bryan Abreu, and a third mid-tier prospect of Pittsburgh’s choosing might be enough. It’s an on-par or better offer than the Celestino/Alcala package that netted Pressly (depending on how Pittsburgh feels about Nova), but Rodriguez also has a better track record than Pressly did in 2018. I would imagine Houston is treating their top 4 prospects as untouchable at this deadline, but Pittsburgh would be well within reason to ask for nearly any combination outside of them.

Yimi Garcia (MIA, RHP)

In a different direction, Yimi Garcia is available at a fraction of Rodriguez’s cost, as he is on his final year of team control and would be a rental acquisition at the deadline. Garcia is another closer on a bad team with a good track record over the last couple of years. Unlike the Pirates, the Marlins will be incentivized to get whatever they can for Yimi due to his contract situation, and he should definitely move at the deadline. Miami has already started dealing expiring contracts, having traded OF Corey Dickerson on June 29th to the Blue Jays, mostly for cash.

Over 29 innings this season, Garcia has accumulated 12 saves in 15 opportunities. He is outperforming his peripherals fairly dramatically, with a 2.79 ERA compared to his 4.36 xERA and 4.03 xFIP. Garcia is another high-spin fastball guy that the Astros love to go after, and another one who remains unaffected by the foreign substances ban. His last outing was consistent with his yearly average of 2540 RPM on his fastball, good for 93rd percentile in the MLB. He is getting hit harder this year by exit velocity, sweet spot%, and hardhit% than at any other point in his career, so the question will be whether or not he can positively regress to what he always has been over the back half of the season.

I’ve mentioned Garcia’s fastball, which averages 96 MPH with tremendous spin. He also throws an extremely hard, horizontally tilted slider in the low 90s that functions more like a cutter. His curveball has been getting smacked around all year to the tune of a .573 xwOBA against, and I expect that if he were to be acquired they would tell him to ditch it in favor of the slider. The Astros pitching philosophy is really simple, when it’s boiled down; throw your best pitch more and your worst pitch less. Garcia also has a good changeup that he throws only 5% of the time and almost exclusively to lefties, with solid armside fade and vertical drop.

While perhaps less exciting than other options, Garcia is a stabilizing veteran presence that the Astros have a need for as a setup man. He would be fairly easy to acquire in a trade, as the Marlins should look to get what they can for him and his peripheral struggles this year are not driving up the price. A back-end top 30 flier from the Astros farm may meet the asking price, and Garcia is only owed roughly $700k at the deadline. This seems like the most likely outcome, as a way to provide reinforcement without expending real prospect value and maintaining flexibility for the ’21-’22 offseason.

Taylor Rogers (MIN, LHP)

As alluded to before with the Pressly deal, this trade has practically been made before between these two teams. Rogers is more established than Pressly was at the time, comes with only one more year of team control instead of Pressly’s two, and is making the most money of anybody on my radar, $6.5m this season ($2.3m at deadline). The Twins would need to eat a significant portion of his salary in order to make this trade work, which means the prospect package needs to be hefty.

Rogers is easy to discuss, because there isn’t much to sell. An elite 3.9 BB% and 32 K% profile headlines more positives; a league leading chase percentage and a 2.60 xERA.

There’s nothing not to like. He pairs a wicked sinker averaging 95.5 MPH, inducing ground balls 62% of the time with a wipeout slider from the left side, providing nearly 40 K%, and has done it at an elite level for years now. Minnesota has a surplus of bullpen talent, and may bite at the initial package discussed for Rodriguez. They also need starting pitching fairly glaringly moving forward, and while I am fairly high on Peter Solomon as a player, he would free up the 40 man spot and is probably enticing for the Twins. Despite Minnesota’s struggles this season, they have a core that has taken them to the playoffs still intact. It seems likely they will retool instead of rebuild, so an offer for Rogers needs to contain some pieces that are MLB ready by 2022. Solomon fits the description, certainly.

Mychal Givens (COL, RHP)

Colorado Rockies reliever Mychal Givens follows through on a pitch to a San Francisco Giants batter during the seventh inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Mychal Givens is a known commodity at this point in his career. While he does not represent an elite closer profile like was once hoped, he has been a solid to above-average reliever with strikeout stuff (29 K%) and some control issues (9 BB%) that represents an upgrade over the middle relievers in the Astros pen. He is currently on the injured list with a lower back strain, but should come off before the deadline. Givens is in his final year of arbitration as well, and would be an extremely low-cost add. Like every other name on this list, Givens is making some money but not payroll-changing at $4m (owed $1.38m if dealt at the deadline), a small enough amount that Colorado would absorb as much as the Astros needed them to for the right prospect(s).

2021 is one of Givens’ better campaigns, as he sits with a 2.78 ERA and 3.98 SIERA, pitching in Coors. He appears to have reinvented his pitch mix this year as well, throwing the changeup more often than he ever has before, from 10% usage all the way to 39%. In years past, Givens relied on a 3-pitch mix: A plus, firm, fairly spinny 4-seam fastball, averaging around 95 MPH, a below average slider that locates well in the mid-80s with a 35% career whiff rate, and the new changeup, which isn’t a very impressive offering on its own but plays well off the fastball, especially to LHB (sorry, Tony!).

If it seems like there is a pattern here, there is. Givens has ditched his slider in favor of the changeup, a strategy that the Astros would probably reverse if he was acquired. The decision makes sense for Givens, though, given the difficulties of throwing a breaking ball in altitude. With rental deadline acquisitions, the opportunity to dramatically change their arsenal comes with its own set of risks, but Givens was throwing a fine slider for years. He could be able to do it again.

Givens should be the easiest to acquire on this list, never occupying a true closer role and having a good but unspectacular season in 2021. Colorado also has no reason to keep him through the end of the year, and he could certainly get crucial outs for a contender. He was traded for a few fringe prospects in 2019, and I would expect he could be had for even less than that now, with less years of control.

Daniel Bard (COL, RHP)

If Givens isn’t seen as enough to reinforce the Astros bleeding bullpen, the Rockies should also be shopping around their closer. Bard is still under team control, but is turning 37 next season and set to face an arbitration raise that only goes up with each save he accrues. Colorado has limited reason to let him finish his career closing games for them this year or next, and should be receptive to offers. The 2020 NL comeback player of the year was born in Houston, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Bard has the absolute highest spin rate on his 4-seam fastball in Major League Baseball post-substance crackdown, averaging 97.8 MPH and 2750 RPM. He overcame the yips that he had early on in his career and has now posted a 9.2% BB rate over his last two major league seasons – still effectively wild, but not disturbingly so anymore. He also has a spinny slider that has performed extremely well this year that he mixes in nearly the same amount as the fastball. His strikeout/flyball stuff is explosive and representative of back-end relief work. He would slide in as a secondary setup man with Pedro Baez healthy. Bard would also be a solid option to strand the runner on second in extra innings due to the all-or-nothing nature of his outings.

YearPitchBAxBASLGxSLGwOBAxwOBAEVLASpin (RPM)ExtensionWhiff%PutAway%
2021Slider.180.187.295.251.231.22186.01929196.137.4%25.3%
Daniel Bard, Slider Metrics

Bard is set to make $2.9m this year, which means approximately $1.1m around the deadline. Colorado has prospect needs everywhere, and may be willing to eat money in a package deal for both relievers with the right prospects attached, in order for the Astros to stay under the tax. Both Bard and Givens represent upgrades over every Astros reliever not named Pressly, with the caveats of Josh James and Pedro Baez as relative unknowns due to health.

The Astros are primarily competing with Toronto for big-name bullpen help, as Toronto has already been linked in rumors to Richard Rodriguez. Toronto has the #7 ranked farm system, and can beat any best offer by Houston if they choose to do so. Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco could also make big bullpen moves. It will be a difficult deadline to navigate, but at least one arm should come to Houston, and hopefully we can agree that there are options to do so while remaining flexible for the future.

Is there anybody I missed? Feel free to engage on Twitter with your thoughts on what should be done.

Thank you for reading. In the meantime, us Astros fans can appreciate Ryan Pressly for saving our entire bullpen this year.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Oscar Pallotta

    Paul Fry is very affordable.

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