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Dec 22

Astros Sign Relievers, Make Statement

Luke Gregerson (57) then with the San Diego Padres.

Luke Gregerson (57) then with the San Diego Padres.

The events in this blog happened nearly two weeks ago. I had some thoughts, figured I should share, so here we are.

There’s probably no easier way to add a few wins than to stop coughing up leads, and by that way of thinking, the Houston Astros recent signings of both Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson make all kinds of sense. The Astros bullpen were tied with Colorado with 26 blown saves—collectively, not just closer Chad Qualls—a total that was 20% higher than both the A’s and the White Sox. Maybe improvement in the bullpen doesn’t completely eliminate that 100 run difference in runs scored and runs allowed from last season, but it narrows the gap, and inches the team closer to the .500 mark.

Nearly 1/3 of the team’s current payroll is tied up in Neshek and Gregerson, an odd bit of extravagance for an Astros team that won 70 games last year. Both players are huge upgrades over the incumbents, and it does make you wonder, along with the Jed Lowrie signing, if Chase Headley had taken their 5-year/$65 million dollar offer (if legit) just how much of a threat would the Astros be in 2015. After designating Gregorio Petit for assignment on the 16th, it’s also worth wondering if he’ll soon be dealt for additional bullpen help. Just spit-balling here. Petit’s a decent utility infielder.

Anyway, after switching to the sinker as his primary pitch, Neshek turned in the finest season of his career. His K/9 jumped to 9.1, which is in line with his career average but well above the 6-7 neighborhood he’d been living in the prior three seasons. In 2013, Neshek threw right-handers his slider about 95% of the time, a total that dropped to just under 54% last season, and for his efforts righties hit a lowly .176/.205/.236 (down from .219/.282/.362 in ’13). Much of Neshek’s improvement came from his ability to handle lefties. Left-handers dropped all the way down to .196/.237/.304 in ‘14 from .315/.367/.556.

I can’t imagine Neshek will even touch that 2.3 bWAR he recorded last year. Not to go all Derrida on you, but as long as Neshek’s season doesn’t near the -0.7 that Jerome Williams put up before being released or Anthony Bass’ -0.8—who Houston will see in their division with the Rangers—it’ll near the two wins. It’s only a two-year deal, with a team option for a third, so if the 34-year old went all fluky in ’14 the damage is at least minimized. He’s at least loads of fun to watch pitch.

Stuff like that has real meaning.

The Astros tied up 18 million over three years for Gregerson, jumps up a few extra million if he’s the team’s closer, and they add another sinker/slider specialist to the pen. Eh. Maybe it’s just me, but Gregerson reminds me of R.A. Dickey when he throws, and nothing about late game situations and knuckleball equates to comfort. Of course, Gregerson doesn’t throw the knuckle, but I’m always waiting for the opposing batters to just say the hell with it and wait for that slow-mo slider to land dead red.

Gregerson, despite my aesthetic hang-ups, is another solid addition, though the decreasing K/9 over the last few years is a disturbing trend. It’s not as though batters have figured him out, though, as his H/9 of 7.2 is at his career mark. Heck, not having him pitch against the Astros might be the best value of all. Houston batters hit a measly .138. Or, four hits (three of those for extra bases!) in 29 at-bats.

There’s a lot to like about the Astros pitching. Dallas Keuchel is improving and turned in a fantastic year (he was in the Cy Young discussion for the first half of the year) and Scott Feldman and Collin McHugh pitched well. They also happen to have a surplus of big-armed right-handers in their minor league system with Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers, etc. All those first and second round picks of recent years will soon bring a new brand of heat to the Lone Star state.

So, Houston jumps from three straight seasons with wins in the 50s to 70 last season. If nothing else, the signings of Neshek and Gregerson (and chasing Headley) indicate GM Jeff Luhnow believes his team is close to competing. Does that mean we’ll soon see uber prospect Carlos Correa in the Majors soon?

Luke Gregerson photo credit: SD Dirk via photopin cc

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