The Houston Astros went from pretender to pretender with a much stronger bullpen over the course of the Winter Meetings, signing both Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to what seem to be pretty good deals on paper.
Despite what their twitter account suggests, these two moves don't a playoff contender make. That doesn't mean these signings are bad for the Astros, though.
Although I am a firm believer in a theory that suggests building a bullpen is the last thing on the checklist to being a contender, that doesn't mean the Astros have wasted an investment. With plenty of young arms on their way in Houston, it will be nice to show the starters that they are committed to closing out games. I'm fully aware these are professional athletes, but I really do think it would be frustrating for a starter to put forth enough effort for a win just to have it blown by a weak bullpen again and again. Similarly, Neshek and Gregerson, who have been through a lot in their career, will be able to help the young relievers who find themselves going through rough patches early in their career. While the move was likely more about their on field value, the psychological impact of having competent relievers can't hurt.
Luke Gregerson was removed from the free agency pool by his previous AL West competitors with a three year offer worth $18.5 million. With fellow relievers David Robertson and Andrew Miller signing 4 year deals worth $46 million and $36 million respectively, Gregerson's deal is undeniably a great value. The 30-year old right-hander joins the Astros having only played for two other major league teams, but, over that time, has carried a relatively heavy workload.
Since his debut with the Padres in 2009, Gregerson has pitched more than 66 innings in all but one season. Over the past ten seasons, only 13 pitchers have pitched more innings than Gregerson before their age 31 season. Most interestingly however -- especially to Houston Astros fans -- is that, among this crop of pitchers, Gregerson is 7th in fWAR over the same span. That list looks like this:
What is troubling though, is what happens to these pitchers during and after their age 31 seasons. Ramon Ramirez, for instance, has pitched a combined 6.2 innings during his age 32 and 33 seasons. Carlos Marmol just wrapped up his age 31 season and was good for -0.5 fWAR. K-Rod did roughly the same with -0.6 fWAR. To be fair, in his age 32 season last year, Jesse Crain had his best season ever with 1.9 fWAR, so it's not all bad news. Pitcher aging curves really do start to tailspin around this time but, luckily, the Astros only committed for three years. For more on pitcher aging curves, check out Ryan Romano's piece on Andrew Miller here.
As for Pat Neshek, can we really take a moment here to appreciate that this man can throw a 95mph fastball and look like this doing it:
Pat Neshek was worth 1.8 fWAR last season which is 0.1 fWAR better than David Robertson. That being said, this was an outlier year for Neshek whereas David Robertson has had four seasons of 1.6 fWAR or better. Neshek also set a personal best in HR/FB rate with an unbelievably minuscule 4.3%.
During Neshek's latest stint in the American League, he pitched 2 seasons for the Oakland Athletics, worked for 60 innings and contributed -0.2 fWAR. Not so great and, still in recent memory. Was his year in St. Louis magic? Can a pitcher benefit from pitching in the National League that much? It's tough to say. In 2013, Neshek's slider, which he threw 15.9% of the time, was only good for a 5.7% swinging strike. However, in 2014 Neshek leaned on the pitch a lot more (33.9%) and it fooled hitters way more (16.9 SwStr%). If Neshek's slider ends up somewhere in the middle of these for the next two years, Neshek's $12.5 million deal (plus a club option for a third year) should definitely be worth it.
I really do like these deals for the Houston Astros despite the obvious concerns I have for the team elsewhere. A bullpen alone can't win championships, just like any other facet of a roster. Making additions to the third worst bullpen in FIP last season shouldn't be criticized too heavily though. There's plenty of off-season left for the Astros to address more glaring needs, but they come out as quick victors of the Winter Meetings for this one and it's plausible to see these arms fetching nice returns in trades in a year or two or potentially propping up their pen during their first year of contention in 2016 or beyond.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Michael Bradburn is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii. You can also reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org