Astros bullpen approaching critical mass

added 7/7/2016 by Greg Thurston

The Astros recent turnaround can be attributed to a combination of factors. Outstanding relief pitching might be at the top of the list. And while the starting pitching has been good, for the most part, their inability to go deep into games could eventually be this team's downfall.

In the last 20 games the Astros have gone 16-4, improving their record from 30-35 to 46-39, climbing out of the depths of mediocrity and directly into playoff contention. In the first game of that stretch Doug Fister recorded one out in the eighth inning. In the 19 games since, no Astros starter has gone to the mound for the eighth.

Over that 20-game span the Astros have used only eight different relievers. The same eight relievers have been leaned on heavily for the entire season. Add in Josh Fields, who was demoted to AAA earlier in the year, and the Astros are the only team in the American League with nine relievers that have appeared in at least 15 games.The point being; the Astros most effective bullpen arms have been trotted out to the mound more often than those of any team in the league. As we learned last season, that type of workload will eventually render poor results.

At the moment, Astros relievers lead the A.L. in FIP (3.06) and have compiled 5.3 WAR, which is far and away the highest total in the league. But keeping those numbers trending the same direction will be difficult, especially if the starters continue to leave games early.

Part of the extreme workload has been the fact that the entire bullpen has been able to stay healthy all season -- which is obviously a good thing. But, should reinforcements be needed, there are several options available in the Astros minor league system.

Fields, who has posted a 1.77 ERA and 0.89 WHIP since being demoted, would probably be the first option. Twenty-three year-old Jandel Gustave (36 K in 36 IP at Fresno) is also on the Astros 40-man roster and could be called upon if needed.

Other outstanding arms in the minor league system include James Hoyt (15.89 K/9 IP, 22 saves, 0.85 WHIP at Fresno), Jordan Jankowski (61 K in 44 IP at Fresno), hard-throwing Reymin Guduan (recently promoted to AAA), and Brady Rodgers (2.88 ERA as a starter at Fresno). However, none of these players are on the 40-man roster, meaning another player would have to be released or run through waivers to accommodate a call-up.

With only four games left until the All-Star break the pressure is on the starters to get deeper into games and ease the workload on the relievers. At the current pace, the Astros could be due for a meltdown similar to what the Rangers have experienced this month. Rangers pitchers have allowed 52 runs over the last five games, going 1-4 and enabling the Astros to close to within 6-1/2 games in the standings. Let's hope that trend continues for Arlington and the Astros are able to make it to the All-Star break without experiencing the same sort of skid.