Houston Astros


Shutdown Corner: AL West Closer Roundup

For the next six weeks, Shutdown Corner will be reviewing the closer situations for each division in baseball, one by one. I'll give you a brief breakdown of who the likely stopper is for each team, a little bit of statistical info, a projected tier to consider when drafting your stopper, and a name or two of who might be in line to pick up saves should the projected fireman falter.

And for what it's worth, here's the tier system I'll be using, pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Texas Rangers: Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan revitalized his career with a powerful 2012 performance in Texas, during which he saved 37 games and re-established himself as a top-tier closer. Nathan's command seems to have come back following a 2010 out of baseball and a weak 2011, and the veteran struck out 30.4% while only walking 5.1%, which is actually a career low. He is entering his age-38 season, which means that his skills could fall off in a hurry if his arm goes, but recent performance says that he could still be solid.

The Rangers did go out and sign another once-mighty closer coming off injury: Joakim Soria. Soria won't be back until May, at the earliest, and will look to recover his command after Tommy John surgery. If Soria's very sharp AND the Rangers are out of contention (not too likely), then the Rangers may look to move Nathan at the trade deadline. But I expect Joe to be a powerful weapon at the end of the Rangers' 'pen for the entire season, and a nice pickup for any fantasy squad.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high effectiveness, minor concerns about age, park and competition)

Next in line: Joakim Soria

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Ryan Madson

Before the 2011-2012 offseason, things were looking pretty good for Ryan Madson. Coming off a very effective 2011 as closer for the Phillies, in which he saved 32 games, posted a 2.37 ERA, and proved that performance was no fluke with an underlying 2.25 FIP. But as the offseason wore on, Madson wound up with one a one-year contract with the Reds, for what was perceived to be much less than his market value. Then, before appearing in a single regular-season game, Madson blew out his UCL and missed the whole season with Tommy John surgery.

Madson may be ready to return at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he also may not. But when he's ready, I expect him to get the first look at closing for the Halos. While Ernesto Frieri, last year's closer, is still on the roster and lurking, I expect Mike Scioscia to give Madson first crack at the ninth, given his past resume. Frieri struck out a host of hitters in 2012, posting a sick 36.4% strikeout rate, but he gave up too many homers (nine) to make the Angels very comfortable.

Unfortunately, pitchers like Madson who return from Tommy John surgery tend to struggle in their first season back. Command, especially, can be tough to recover in the first season, so I'd expect that Madson won't pitch anything like his 2011 self right away. Given this -- and the fact that the fireballing Frieri is waiting in the wings -- you'd either want to handcuff Frieri to any draft of Madson, or avoid him altogether, in my book.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (coming off major surgery, stiff competition from Ernesto Frieri)

Next in line: Ernesto Frieri

Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour

Boy, oh boy, did Ryan Cook look good in his 71 games in 2012. But when 2013 starts up, it's most likely that Grant Balfour will be back as the first option to close in the Oakland bullpen. Balfour, a veteran strikeout artist, has been pretty consistent since his 2008 return to a full-time bullpen role with the Rays. Balfour has a career strikeout rate of 26.4%, a critical skill for a high-leverage reliever.

And yet, I really don't expect Grant to finish the season as A's closer. If the Athletics repeat their 2012 winning ways, the team might hold on to him and keep their 'pen strength high going into the playoffs. But, more likely, I see the team dealing Balfour before his contract expires at the end of season, with young fireballer Ryan Cook assuming the ninth inning duties. If you draft Balfour, have Cook on standby, in case of a slump or deal.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, moderate likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Ryan Cook

Seattle Mariners: Tom Wilhelmsen

One of the best bullpen stories in 2012 was the emergence of Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen. Despite being out of baseball entirely between 2005 and 2009, Wilhelmsen climbed through the Mariners organization to become the team's closer in 2012. He posted 29 saves despite not even earning the full-time closer position until early June. He even got in on a six-pitcher no-hitter, putting a nice bow on his narrative.

The Bartender serves up a nasty fastball-curveball combination, and it helps him get the strikeouts that are so critical to a closer's success. In 2012, Wilhelmsen logged a 26.7% K-rate, buoyed by a decent 8.9% BB-rate, which isn't half bad. Best of all, Wilhelmsen is cost-effective and isn't really challenged by any other arms in the Seattle bullpen -- meaning that he's likely to keep his closer status all season long.

While some draftniks may be put off by Wilhelmsen's late-career rise to stopper status, I'm not one of those people. I expect him to be very solid in 2013.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high stability, high-to-moderate effectiveness)

Next in line: Carter Capps (?)

Houston Astros: Jose Veras

There's not much in the way of proven late-inning relievers these days in Houston, which isn't a great sign. Sure, the bullpen is probably the last concern of a rebuilding club, but the Astros' impending move to the AL West means tougher competition, and shorter outings for their admittedly weak rotation. The Astros will lean on their young bullpen, and especially new recruit Jose Veras, who's in line to close.

Veras has been pretty good these past two seasons, spending 2011 with the Pirates and 2012 with the Brewers. In each season, Veras's performance was pretty similar: huge strikeout numbers (25.9% and 26.3% strikeout rates), terrible walk rates (11.2% and 13.3%) that led to pretty decent ERA totals (3.80 and 3.63). 2013 will be Veras's age-32 season, so while it's unlikely we'll see big-time improvement, there are no outstanding indicators that his performance will tank either.

But if Veras is as good as he could be, he'll have a "proven closer" tag to him, and that will make him an attractive trade target by the deadline. The Astros aren't a competitive team yet, and they'll look to move him for value, the same way they have with Mark Melancon, Brett Myers, and Wilton Lopez in the past. Don't expect him to finish his season in Houston.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (high strikeout totals, high initial stability, high likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Josh Fields (?)

All stats from FanGraphs.



The Next Big Thing: Waiting On Top Prospects

The 2012 season was the year of immediate impact. All across the league we saw rookie players come up and contribute more than expected, and it started right in April with reigning Rookies of the Year Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. It extended far beyond those two, of course. Wade Miley was an All-Star for the Diamondbacks, Rob Brantly hit .290 with a .372 OBP in a month's worth of games for the Marlins, Manny Machado hit two homers in his second game with the Orioles, the division-winning Athletics had an all-rookie rotation at one point, the list goes on and on. Todd Frazier, Yoenis Cespedes, Will Middlebrooks, Anthony Rizzo ... there were impact rookies everywhere.

Fantasy owners are looking for that next big thing every season, and that search figures to be a little more intense in 2012 after the banner rookie class of a year ago. Top prospects are always a great place to start, but some are blocked or simply two far away from the majors to have real fantasy value. Some are the victims of their own success as clubs will keep them in the minors in April and May to ensure an extra year of team control down the line. Here's a look at some of the game's best up-and-coming big leaguers who could be this season's Trout or Harper.

Arizona Diamondbacks: LHP Tyler Skaggs
The D'Backs have a strong rotation fronted by Miley, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy, but that fifth spot is up for grabs. Patrick Corbin handled himself well enough last year (4.54 ERA in 107 IP) and Josh Collmenter is lurking, but the 21-year-old Skaggs will get a chance to make the team out of Spring Training as well. He got hit pretty hard in six late-season starts (5.83 ERA and 1.50 WHIP) but that's not the end of the world. His minor league performance is dynamite (2.87 ERA and 8.5 K/9 in 2012) and his curveball is a true out-pitch. The trade that sent Trevor Bauer to the Indians removed one fifth starter candidate from Arizona's equation, but my guess is Corbin will get the first shot with Skaggs waiting in Triple-A for someone to get hurt or underperform.

Baltimore Orioles: RHP Dylan Bundy
The Orioles made a bold move late last season by calling up baseball's best pitching prospect for the stretch run in September even though he was still a teenager at the time. Bundy, who has since turned 20, made two short relief appearances and is slated for more time in the minors in 2013. He has just 103 2/3 total minor league innings under his belt, only 16 2/3 have come above the Single-A level. Baltimore has already shown a willingness to use Bundy in the big leagues, but I highly doubt using him as a starter right out of Spring Training is in the cards. If anything, the young right-hander is a second half call-up.

Houston Astros: 1B Jonathan Singleton
No team is rebuilding quite like the Astros, though they recently signed Carlos Pena to caddy with Brett Wallace at the first base and DH spots. The first base seat is just being kept warm for the 21-year-old Singleton, who hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers in Double-A last season. He followed up the season with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. Houston has every reason to play the service time game with Singleton, who they acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade two years ago. After a few hundred Triple-A at-bats to start the season, expect to see he young left-handed hitter in the middle of the big league lineup.

New York Mets: RHP Zack Wheeler & C Travis d'Arnaud
Matt Harvey deserved a mention in my quick list of impact rookies in the intro, and he figures to have some running mates in 2013. Like the Astros and Singleton, the Mets have every reason to manipulate Wheeler's and d'Arnaud's service time next season. Wheeler, 22, is arguably the second best pitching prospect in the game but I do not think the team will want to keep him in Triple-A Las Vegas very long. It might the best hitter's environment in professional baseball and could wreck a pitcher's confidence over the full season. Since he needs a challenge after overwhelming the Double-A level this past season (3.27 ERA with 8.5 K/9), expect to see the right-hander in New York's rotation come June.

D'Arnaud, 23, was the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade. He hit a stout .333/.380/.595 with 16 homers in Last Vegas last season (the Mets and Blue Jays swapped Triple-A affiliates this offseason) but did not play after late-June due to a knee injury. After another few hundred at-bats in Triple-A, expect to see d'Arnaud replace John Buck behind the plate at the big league level. He, Wheeler, and Harvey are the team's high-end battery of the future.

Seattle Mariners: RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP James Paxton & LHP Danny Hultzen
Perhaps no club has as many high-end pitching prospects as Seattle, especially if you want to factor in closeness to the majors. Walker, 20, is the best of the bench despite some hiccups at Double-A in 2012 (4.69 ERA). He did skip right over High-A High Desert to avoid the hitter friendly California League, so we'll cut him some slack. There is true ace potential in the young righty, but he's unlikely to see a meaningful amount of big league innings this coming season.

Paxton, 24, is probably first in line of the big three after pitching to a 3.04 ERA (9.3 K/9) at Triple-A last season. He'll get a long look in Spring Training and at the moment, his main competition for a rotation spot is the right-handed trio of Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. I would expect to see Paxton sooner rather than later in 2013, perhaps even as a member of the Opening Day rotation. Hultzen, 23, has quite a bit of work ahead of him after walking 43 batters in 48 2/3 Triple-A innings last season, including 14 walks in his final 7 1/3 innings of the year. I wouldn't count on him for fantasy purposes next season.

St. Louis Cardinals: OF Oscar Taveras, RHP Shelby Miller & RHP Trevor Rosenthal
The Cardinals have arguably the best farm system in baseball, and they seem to produce productive players at an extraordinary rate. Jaime Garcia got hurt? Here's Joe Kelly (3.53 ERA in 107 IP). Need a versatile bench player? There's Matt Carpenter (.828 OPS while playing five positions). Rafael Furcal blew out his elbow? Don't worry, Pete Kozma will save the day (.952 OPS late in the season). I wouldn't count on Kozma ever doing that again, but the point stands. The Cardinals are an exceptional player development club.

Taveras, 20, is arguably the best pure hitting prospect in the minors. He managed a .321/.380/.572 line in Double-A a year ago and following up with a dominant winter ball showing. He's slated to open the season back in Triple-A and although St. Louis has a superb big league outfield, Taveras figures to make his debut in the second half either as an injury replacement or by simply forcing his way into the lineup a la Allen Craig. Miller and Rosenthal, both 22, made their MLB debuts late last year and pitched well enough to earn at least a real shot at making the team out of camp. Rosenthal in particular dazzled in relief, especially during the postseason (15 strikeouts and four baserunners in 8 2/3 innings). The Cardinals have rotation depth with Garcia, Kelly, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Lance Lynn, but Garcia and Carpenter are injury concerns at this point. I believe Rosenthal will open the year in the bullpen (and be a force) while Miller bides his time as a starter in Triple-A.

Tampa Bay Rays: OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi & RHP Chris Archer
The Rays play the service time game as much as anyone, though they didn't play it well enough with David Price. He qualified for Super Two status by approximately two weeks. Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all had to wait their turn in recent years. The most notable exception is Evan Longoria, who was recalled a handful of days into the 2008 season only to be given a long-term contract extension (giving the team cost certainty) a few days later.

Myers, 22, was the centerpiece of the James Shields trade and could easily be in line for a Longoria-esque quick promotion and extension, but a return trip to the minors to start the season after striking out 140 times in 2012 seems like a safe bet. Tampa has enough outfield depth with Jennings, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Brandon Guyer, and Sam Fuld to cover. The 24-year-old Archer and 22-year-old Odorizzi are at the mercy of the team's rotation depth. Even after moving Shields and Wade Davis, they still boast a starting staff that includes Price, Hellickson, Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, and possibly even the recently-signed Roberto Hernandez. Archer made six big league appearances last season (4.60 ERA) and is a) first in line for a promotion, and b) more fantasy useful given his elite strikeout rate (11.0 K/9 in MLB and 9.8 K/9 in the minors).

Texas Rangers: 3B Mike Olt & SS Jurickson Profar
Baseball isn't fair some times. Quality players at shortstop and third base are in short supply these days, yet Texas boasts an elite left side of the infield both at the big league level (Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre) and in the upper minors (Profar and Olt). I'm convinced the 24-year-old Olt will be traded before the season (Justin Upton?), especially since Lance Berkman will take most, if not all of the DH at-bats. Depends on where he ends up, Olt could either open the season in the show or back in Triple-A. That's a situation worth monitoring given all of the current injury-prone and unreliable fantasy third base options.

Profar, 19, is baseball's top prospect, and GM Jon Daniels recently told Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas that he doesn't envision using him as a bench player. "It doesn't necessarily make sense ... I don't see (Olt and Profar) as bench players. It doesn't make sense," said the GM. There had been some rumblings Profar could open the season with the MLB club as a second baseman with Ian Kinsler sliding over to first (or the outfield). Either way, he's the only prospect in the minors with a chance to have a Troutian level of impact, meaning power and speed and run-production. That's impossible and unfair to expect from any prospect however, especially someone so young. Profar will definitely play in the big leagues next season after receiving a September call-up last year, but the "when" part is a total wildcard right now.



Astros Name Brett Myers Closer

With a month-plus of mock-draft data in the rearview, it's safe to say mockers before Tuesday had regarded Astros pitcher Brett Myers with general apathy. The right-hander's low draft rate of just 12.1 percent, per MockDraftCentral, indicates he was valued somewhere between late-round flier and waiver wire streaming candidate -- closer to the latter, actually.

All of that, however, has changed with an unexpected announcement made by the Astros on Tuesday.

After logging 200-plus innings as a starter in each of the past two seasons, Myers, 31, will close for Houston in 2012.  It settles once and for all the question of who'd be taking the ball in the ninth inning for the Astros this year, as we'd previously been left to speculate on the likes of luminaries such as Brandon Lyon (coming off major shoulder surgery), Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter, and Fernando Abad (after whom I've named my team "Breaking Abad" in the MLBTR league -- yes, I'm quite pleased with this).

So, the pertinent question here is not if Myers should be drafted -- after all, there are only 30 closers in baseball, so they all must go -- but rather when he should be drafted and what we can expect in regards to production.

Certainly, the combination of Myers' underwhelming strikeout rate and the fact that he'll be closing for what might be the worst team in baseball will conspire to make him less than a sexy pick, as it were. Those concerns are understandable, so while I don't think there's much room for Myers to be a value pick, per se, I do think he'll have held his own by season's end in comparison to the other closers in the bottom-third tier.

Myers has averaged about 7.0 K/9 the past two seasons as a starter, which is a respectable figure but well off from his best years as a Phillie, when he was just north of 8.50 K/9. The good news, though, is that most pitchers see an uptick in strikeouts when they move to the 'pen, and though it'd be foolish to expect anything near 10.88 K/9, which Myers posted during his lone season as a reliever in 2007, a return to the 8.00 range is perfectly reasonable. That, combined with a sub-3.00 BB/9 rate, should make Myers a useful closer, not significantly more or less prone to meltdowns than the average stopper.

As for the matter of pitching for a potential 100-loss club, I'll reiterate what I've said before regarding the tenuous correlation between a team's wins total and its closer's saves total: If there's a formula out there for predicting such a thing, I've never seen it. Sure, the Astros' closer in 2011, Mark Melancon, finished with a mere 20 saves. However, Mar-Mel didn't even take the reins till mid-May. With an extra five or six weeks of closing and a little bit of luck, it's fair to assume he might have ended up with 25 or even 30 saves. Elsewhere, in contrast, Mariners closer Brandon League netted 37 saves last season for the 95-loss M's.

Finally, it's worth noting that Myers' vesting contract option for 2013 has been restructured to reflect his new role, which indicates to me that his change is permanent rather than experimental. I suppose that Astros could always re-restructure it if things don't work out for Myers as a closer, but I seriously doubt they'll go through the trouble. All of this is to say, I expect Myers to hold onto the closer's role throughout 2012, and while that's far from guaranteed -- things can change in a hurry after a couple blown saves -- Myers must have more relative job security than the Matt Thorntons, Javy Guerras and Chris Perezes of the world, who will be facing stiff competition from up-and-comers in their own bullpens.

Those closers are currently being drafted in the 230-range, and I wouldn't be averse to drafting Myers before any of them.


Full Story |  Comments (0) | Categories: Houston Astros

Cherry-Picking With Bud Norris

Time to do a little cherry-picking, slicing up a player's stats to show his potential upside.  Here's Astros starter Bud Norris in 13 starts from May 13th through August 19th:

4.48 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 in 80 1/3 innings

These numbers are intriguing, as Norris' biggest wart from 2010 was his 4.5 BB/9.  Over this cherry-picked sample at least, he was able to limit the walks.  Norris averages 93.6 mph on his fastball, and is a cheap strikeout source who is currently being drafted in the 39th round (so, not at all in most mixed leagues). 

One cause for concern was bursitis and biceps tendinitis that cropped up in late May.  Norris was already on a rehab assignment by June 7th, so the Astros may have just been playing it safe.  There's also the issue of Norris' 6.1 BB/9 over his final eight starts.  But hey, that's why you can snag him for a bench spot.



Breaking: Brocail Gets Save Opp

Quick note, Doug Brocail is getting the save chance for the Astros tonight.  They may just characterize it as a break for Jose Valverde.  People will pick up Brocail in droves regardless.



A Little Caution On J.R. Towles

I've been hyping Houston's J.R. Towles pretty often here on RotoAuthority as a sleeper at the catcher position.  He's intriguing in two-catcher mixed leagues or NL-only leagues.

I project Towles at .271-11-57-60-11 in 388 ABs, an $11.91 value.  That's seventh among backstops.  However, there are reasons for caution here.

  • Towles is currently dealing with a strained hamstring.  Say that instead of 11 steals, he's careful because of the hammie and his precarious rookie status and just swipes two.  35% of his value disappears.
  • Towles started last year in A ball.  He played 26 games there, 61 at Double A, 13 at Triple A, and 15 in the bigs.  So, just a half season worth of high minors seasoning.
  • He's a rookie catcher learning to handle a big league staff.  That's a tad stressful, and it could affect his hitting.
  • The Astros have loved Brad Ausmus for far too long, and if he were to split the gig evenly with Towles I would not be shocked.
  • So make sure you have a good #1 if you're going to use Towles as your #2.  And if you went a few extra bucks for more known commodities like Kenji Johjima, Bengie Molina, Carlos Ruiz, or Ryan Doumit, I would not fault you.  Hell, Jorge Posada seems to be getting no love in fantasy leagues, and he's not much worse than Martin/Martinez/Mauer/McCann (the Four Ms).




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