Spring Training Job Battles: Astros Closer
The second in our series of Spring Training Job Battles is the Houston Astros closer role.
The Astros spent a lot of money addressing their bullpen this off-season, committing $31 million to Luke Gregerson (three years, $18.5M) and Pat Neshek (two years, $12.5M).
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow hinted at the press conference introducing the duo of relievers that it would be Gregerson who is the favorite to close: “We do feel like he’s got a real good chance to be the guy that’s pitching in the ninth inning.”
Lunhow said it would be up to Houston manager A.J. Hinch, who will let the battle play out at spring training.
Don’t forget that incumbent Chad Qualls is coming off a pretty solid season as the Astros closer: 19 saves and a 3.33 ERA, but he did blow six opportunities.
Qualls is in the final season of a two-year, $6M deal, but the Astros hold a $3.5M club option. Houston may want to use Qualls as a closer to increase his trade value if they choose to deal him in July.
It’s interesting to note that this trio are all relatively soft-tossers and over 30 years old, while there’s a younger flamethrower on the roster in Josh Fields who may eventually be the long-term answer at closer. Gregerson, 31, averaged just 88.4 mph last season while Neshek, 34, averaged 90.3 and Qualls, 36, averaged 92.6.
Fields is no spring chicken at 29, but he averaged 94.4 mph on his fastball last season and posted a dynamic 11.5 K/9 while improving his control from 4.3 BB/9 in 2013 to 2.8 last year.
We have projected Gregerson as the favorite to land the job, giving him 22 saves with a 2.99 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. We have Qualls getting eight saves with a 3.42 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, and Neshek at six saves with a 3.11 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Fields failed to make our top 50 relief pitchers in our preseason rankings, but he makes for one of the better lottery tickets outside the ranks for the chance he takes hold of the job at some point.
Gregerson has a career 2.75 ERA after posting a 2.12 mark with the A’s last season to go with that $18.5M contract, so we’re prognosticating that he will win the job. But closer situations can be very fluid, especially when a team has four relievers capable of finishing games like the Astros.
Considering how little you’ll have to pay to get one of this foursome, they each are worth a late-round flyer or a small auction bid.