The Houston Astros took the American League by storm for most of 2015, and thanks to young, cost-controlled stars like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, and several others, they look primed to compete again in 2016. However, there are a couple of holes the front office has to address before Opening Day. There are legitimate questions about the corner infield spots and the back end of the rotation, but those aren’t as detrimental to Houston’s outlook as another gaping hole in its roster.
It’s a hole that, for the first part of 2015, looked like it was being filled nicely before everything went south in September and October. It’s a hole that almost ruined the Astros’ Cinderella season then did ruin their Cinderella playoff run. Addressing this hole should be at the top of Houston’s offseason to-do list, especially since the team that beat them in the ALDS and eventually won the World Series has filled the same hole on their roster better than pretty much anyone else in baseball. So with that said, let’s talk about the Houston Astros bullpen.
That September/October mark really jumps out at you, doesn’t it? That was the month in which the Astros lost the AL West lead. Houston had seemed to be in complete control of the division coming into the home stretch of the season. While it would be wrong to assume that the late-season implosion of the bullpen was entirely responsible for Houston’s almost-collapse, it’s clear that it should earn some of the blame.
The Astros survived, though! They snagged the second AL Wild Card spot on the last day of the season, went into New York, and shut out the struggling Yankees (with three hitless innings from their bullpen, no less). They took two out of the first three games of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals and in game four found themselves six outs away from clinching the series on their home turf. Then this happened.
Look, it’s not as if the Astros were the only postseason team to be victimized by an epic Royals rally. By the time the Royals won the 2015 World Series a few weeks later, they had completed similar comebacks against the likes of David Price and Matt Harvey, not to mention their teams’ respective bullpens. Meanwhile, the dominant Royals relief corps outdid them all, led by star closer Wade Davis.
Thanks to the Royals example, every fan and every team saw the importance of having strong relievers in the playoffs – none more so than the Astros after their ALDS collapse. That said, building an elite bullpen is one of the hardest tasks for front offices to accomplish. All too often relievers suddenly become seriously injured or ineffective, which makes signing them to large contracts a very bad idea. Many teams choose instead to sift through promising minor league arms or failed starters not unlike miners used to sift through sand and rock to find gold nuggets. (Davis, a failed starter himself, is a perfect example of such a nugget.) There are very few sure bets when it comes to assembling a bullpen, yet it’s clearly become essential to any championship-level team. The Astros are almost at that level. The good news is, they can take the leap right now and acquire one of the most consistently dominant closers in baseball to boost their ‘pen because one of the most dominant closers in baseball is available. His name is Aroldis Chapman, and the Houston Astros should trade for him right now.
For most baseball fans, Chapman needs no introduction. The Cincinnati Reds closer has turned heads and lit up radar guns in a way no other pitcher has since his debut. His average fastball velocity is usually around 100 miles per hour, and he threw so many pitches above that mark in 2015 that MLB.com’s official Statcast™ leaderboards introduced a “Chapman filter” in the hardest pitches thrown category. He’s turned that power pitching approach into a career 2.17 ERA and 1.97 FIP, a WHIP just over 1.00, and an average of about 1.7 strikeouts per inning. Chapman’s never had under 30 saves since assuming the full-time closer role in 2012, and has held opponents to a batting average of under .200 in every season of his career.
In a world where dependable, elite bullpen arms are few and far between, “The Cuban Missile” is as sure a thing as they come. He’s also very much on the trade block, per multiple reports from MLB insiders. The Reds are in full rebuilding mode, and the number one priority in that rebuild right now is to trade their star closer. The price will no doubt be steep – closers are going for top dollar this winter, as we saw firsthand when the Red Sox shipped a fistful of top prospects to San Diego in exchange for Padres closer Craig Kimbrel. Two things, however, work in the Astros’ favor here:
1) Even after trading several premium prospects at the 2015 midseason deadline, Houston’s farm system was still strong enough to be ranked 8th overall by MLB.com’s Jim Callis in August. They have the pieces to pay as steep a price as the Red Sox did for Kimbrel…
2) …but they won’t have to. Kimbrel is signed for two more years with an option for 2018, and Boston could easily extend his contract well beyond that. Chapman, on the other hand, is in his final year of arbitration and will hit free agency after the 2016 season. One year of Chapman most likely won’t cost as much in terms of prospects as two-plus years of Kimbrel.
The Astros have the means. They have the opportunity. They should certainly have the motive. Do you want to become the next Kansas City Royals, Houston? You’re already almost there. This is how you take the next step. The Astros have already ensured they’ll be one of the most feared teams in baseball next year. Having The Cuban Missile lurking in their bullpen just makes them that much scarier.