Oh What A Relief It Aint'
added 4/24/2002 by Todd Brody
The biggest difference between the 2000 and 2001 seasons for the Astros was the bullpen. Yes, the Astros starting pitching also was not good in 2000. But the Astros simply had the absolute worst bullpen in baseball. They blew a ton of saves and they seemed to let every inherited runner score. Recognizing that this was a weakness, the Astros went out and signed Mike Jackson and Doug Brocail - two proven relievers - and, late in the season, traded for Mike Williams. While Brocail didn't pan out because he got injured early, the Astros' commitment to the bullpen paid off. Down the stretch, the Astros had four "closers," making their bullpen one of the strongest in the majors.
The Astros made several critical decisions with respect to their bullpen during the past offseason, which already have impacted this season and which will like impact the next few seasons as well. The first decision was to sign Billy Wagner to a long-term contract. And the second was to eschew signing a top free agent middle reliever, like David Weathers, and instead to sign a bunch of retread pitchers to minor league deals. I call these separate decisions but, in reality, the Astros' decision to sign cruddy relievers that no other team wanted was the direct result of their decision to give Wagner $24 million. In sum, despite the fact that the strategy of improving the bullpen led to success in 2001, the Astros abandoned this strategy for 2002.
Yes, it is early in the season and yes, certain pitchers like Octavio Dotel and Nelson Cruz have not pitched up to expectations so far, but it seems to me that the Astros' strategy is a total failure. Wagner has not pitched well. And this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Wagner is not the same pitcher that he was prior to the injury. He pitched well at the beginning of last season, but he struggled down the stretch and it has continued into 2002. Relievers, to a large degree, have a limited life shelves. Maybe Wagner's injury accelerated the process. But I cannot say that he is a top closer right now. And maybe the Astros would have been better off if they would have held out before giving him a long-term deal, particularly when there aren't a whole lot of teams that are giving that much money to a closer right now.
And let's talk about the Astros attempt to find a middle reliever on the scrap heap, which also hasn't worked out so well. Chuck McElroy and C.J. Nitkowski - the two designated lefty specialists, didn't even make the team out of spring training. Gerry Hunsicker said that he was disappointed with C.J.'s performance during spring training. Why? C.J., despite his cult following, has never shown to be a capable reliever. Brocail and Hipolito Pichardo haven't pitched an inning yet because of injuries and there is no timetable for Brocail's return. (And what were the Astros doing signing Brocail if they knew that he wasn't going to be ready to start the season?) The only one of the retreads who has pitched well is T.J. Matthews and frankly, I still yet at my television set every time I see him warming up. Look, the only general managing I have ever done is for my fantasy baseball team. But everyone knows that one good player is more valuable that five mediocre (at best) players. David Weathers would have been far more valuable than all of these free agent relievers combined. And the Astros could have signed Weathers for nearly what they paid, T.J., C.J., and the rest of the hole in the wall gang.
It seems to me that the Astros were fools to spend $24 million on Wagner given their payroll limitations. In the modern game, when pitchers are taken out after 100 pitches and often don't last past the sixth inning, it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend a ton of money on a closer when you don't have (or can't afford) quality middle relievers who can get to the closer.
So where does this leave the Astros? In light of the fact that the free agent pickups have not worked out, the Astros are scouring their minor leagues, hoping that Brandon Puffer, Ricky Stone, Scott Linebrink, or Brad Lidge will be able to stick a finger in the dike and prevent the Astros from flooding. The Astros are going to keep 12 pitchers on the roster for a short period of time, hoping that quantity can make up for quality. Maybe this will work, but it seems to me that the Astros are rushing players like Lidge to the majors (contrary to everything that Gerry Hunsicker believes) and I would hate to see a good young pitcher hurt because he was brought up to soon.
Yes, it is early. But unless Wagner and Dotel can totally turn it around, and the Astros can find a couple of pitchers who can get the Astros through the sixth and seventh innings, this is going to be a very long season.