Who Will Be The Houston Astros’ Closer in 2014?

2013 was a nightmare season for the bullpen of the Houston Astros. They ranked last in nearly every statistical category. The Houston bullpen ended the season with baseball’s worst ERA (4.92), most blown saves (29), most walks (252), highest opponent batting average (.265), highest WHIP (1.52) and gave up by far the most homers (85). In fact, the next worst bullpen, in terms of homers given up, was the New York Yankees – who gave up 21 fewer homers than Houston’s bullpen in 2013. When recently asked about the state of his team’s bullpen, Astros manager Bo Porter had this to say, according to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com:

“When you look at the woes in which we had in our bullpen last year. It’s something we set out as an organization to make sure we rectified. We brought in some guys that have the ability to rectify that portion of our ball club, and I’m anxious to see how it plays out.”

Porter also went on to say that recent off-season acquisitions Jesse CrainChad Qualls and Matt Albers will all be considered for the team’s closing role, as well as Josh Fields – who handled the role for much of last season after Jose Veras was traded to the Detroit Tigers in late July. Porter also said:

“I think it’s totally open because I think competition brings out the best in all of us. And it’s something that we’re going to let these guys compete and let the competition tell us who should actually have that role.”

Porter has always made it clear that he’s open to have a “closer-by-committee”. The Astros would ideally like to have one closer that they can turn to in the ninth inning, but Porter knows that that might not happen at the beginning of the season.

“When you have that guy, that’s the ninth-inning guy and you know when it’s a save situation he’s going to get the ball every time,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not at that point, as far as our team would go. I’m glad we have a multitude of guys capable of manning that role. Again, we’ll let that competition play itself out and I believe one of these guys, if not two or three of these guys, are going to step up. It’s a good problem to have if you have everyone throw well and now you look and you feel like you have a closer in the seventh, eighth and ninth.”

So who exactly will be the Astros’ closer this upcoming season? Out of the four finalist Porter mentioned (Crain, Albers, Qualls and Fields), Josh Fields seems to have the worst chance of winning the job. Let’s face it, Fields lacks major league experience – entering his second major league season. Plus, do the Astros really want to be handing the ball to a guy in the ninth inning who has less than 40 major league innings pitched under his belt? I highly doubt it. The only reason the 28-year-old is even a consideration for winning the closer’s role is simply due to the fact that he was the closer for the team last season following Jose Veras’ departure. Don’t get me wrong, the guy has the potential to be a solid reliever for the Astros in 2014, but his lack of experience should be a concern for Houston. Handing him the ball in those high leverage situations in the ninth might not be the brightest idea for the Astros.

Matt Albers is another guy who I think the Astros shouldn’t hand the ball in the ninth. Sure, he has been a great reliever over the past couple of seasons, posting a 2.77 ERA in that span, but my main concern with Albers being Houston’s closer is that he’s not a strikeout pitcher. He has a career K/9 rate of 6.29. Not the ideal K/9 rate of a closer if you ask me. Albers also has very little closing experience in the majors. He has just 17 career saves opportunities and has yet to pick up his first career save. However, he does do a great job of keeping the ball on the ground. Last season his groundball rate was an American League-best 63.8%. Albers will certainly be a strong consideration for the closer’s role, but he’ll most likely be better suited as a set-up man.

Between Jesse Crain and Chad Qualls, I’d give the ball to Crain in the ninth inning … if he’s healthy, and he hasn’t been healthy for quite a while now. He only pitched 36 2/3 innings for the White Sox last season before he was sidelined by a shoulder injury. When healthy, Crain is without a doubt the best of the bunch. Before his injury last season, he was on pace for a career year. He was putting up eye-popping numbers. He posted a 0.74 ERA along with a very impressive 11.29 K/9 rate and was selected to the American League All-Star team despite an injury-shortened season. It seems that the main consensus is that if Crain is healthy then he’ll be the Astros closer. If not, then Chad Qualls will be the Astros closer.

Qualls has plenty of closing experience under his belt. He racked up 24 saves for the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2009. Last season he was solid for the Miami Marlins, posting a 2.61 ERA along with a 7.11 K/9 rate in 62 innings of work. Another very appealing stat of Qualls is his 63.3% groundball rate in 2013. With all of the setbacks that Jesse Crain is having, expect Qualls to be the Astros closer for a good chunk of the 2014 season. Let’s just hope he doesn’t do much of this though:

chad-qualls-falls

Follow Anton on Twitter @AntonJoeMLB for all the latest news and updates from around baseball.

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