Inbox: Who will fill Astros closer role in '21?

Beat writer Brian McTaggart fields questions from fans

February 12th, 2021

HOUSTON -- We’re only a week away from Astros pitchers and catchers reporting to the club’s complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the start of Spring Training. Players will have to quarantine for five days before arriving at the facility, and they’ll be under some strict coronavirus protocols during their stay in the Sunshine State.

The Astros appear to be pretty much done with their offseason moves, though there’s a chance they could make another signing in the coming weeks. So far, they’ve bolstered their bullpen by adding Pedro Báez, Ryne Stanek and Steve Cishek, brought back catcher Jason Castro and re-signed outfielder Michael Brantley. They also signed outfielder Steven Souza Jr., on a Minor League deal.

Let’s open the Inbox and see what’s on your mind as we inch closer to Spring Training:

Who will be Houston's closer?
-- @HecklingMorty

I don’t think anyone can answer yet. The signing of Cishek to a Minor League deal gives the club someone with substantial closing experience, but it’s been a while since he was a frontline closer. I’m not so sure the Astros won’t still try to acquire a closer, and they’ve shown strong interest in Trevor Rosenthal, who remains on the market. If they can reel him in, they’d have the makings of an elite bullpen. Without Rosenthal, they have a few options. Ryan Pressly would likely get the first shot at it. He converted 11 of 13 saves last year after Roberto Osuna got injured.

I'd love to see an eight-pitcher 'pen featuring Pressly, Enoli Paredes, Brooks Raley, Blake Taylor, Joe Smith, Báez and two of Bryan Abreu/Stanek/Cishek. But it seems as if every one of these guys is a one-inning pitcher. Who is the best candidate for an Opening Day long man?
-- @qnjastros

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Pressly, Paredes, Raley, Taylor, Smith and Báez appear to be bullpen locks heading into camp, and I’d probably put Stanek in that group as well. That’s seven arms for likely eight spots. Cishek will push to make the club. I see the Astros carrying eight relievers (and five starters), which would mean 13 pitchers and 13 position players.

The need for a long reliever could mean Luis Garcia and Brandon Bielak could push for a roster spot, with Abreu in camp trying to get back on track. Austin Pruitt had surgery and is likely going to start the year on the injured list. Otherwise, he’d be perfect for that role. Garcia threw 4 1/3 innings of relief last year in his Major League debut and he later started a game in the playoffs and appeared to be comfortable in any role.

Astros manager Dusty Baker may view a long reliever as a necessity in a season in which pitchers are going to have to carry much larger workloads than they did last year. The potential for injuries could be a concern.

Is the signing of Castro a negative sign towards Korey Lee's development? Is there a timeline for when he may start to work his way towards the bigs?
-- @ChrisOsterman

Lee, the Astros’ first-round Draft pick in 2019 and No. 5-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, won’t play in the big leagues this year. His professional experience has been limited to 64 games at Class A Short-Season in '19, so he’s going to need a lot more Minor League at-bats. The signing of Castro to pair with Martin Maldonado gives Houston one of the most experienced catching duos in Major League Baseball and was done with '21 in mind. Also, if Maldonado doesn’t come back in '22 (he’s a free agent), Castro will still be under contract and would be a great role model for Lee if he’s ready for the big leagues.

The Cubs signed Jake Marisnick to a one-year, $1.5 million deal (according to sources). The Astros couldn't spend that for a much better option than Straw?
-- @Magnahorn

As much as the return of Marisnick would have made a nice story, the Astros feel it’s time to see if the 26-year-old Straw can be their everyday center fielder and replace the departed George Springer. Marisnick and Straw share many of the same tools, too, so having two right-handed-hitting speedy center fielders probably isn’t the best way to take up two roster spots. It’s a great opportunity for Straw, but if he can’t take advantage of it, Houston will have to try to find a replacement via trade in the regular season. As for now, it’s Straw’s job to lose. And don’t forget Pedro Leon -- the Cuban player who signed for $4 million last month -- is probably on a fast track to the big leagues as well.

Any idea when Justin Verlander might be ready to pitch again?
-- @astroslady62

Verlander is likely out until the 2022 season. He had Tommy John surgery on Sept. 30 of last year and the recovery time is 12-14 months. That likely takes him through this year’s playoffs and has him in line to return completely recovered in ’22. Of course, Verlander will be a free agent after this season. I certainly think he’s determined to pitch again, but it might not be for the Astros.

Do the Astros feel they have enough starting pitching? Seems like they are an injury away from struggling to cover innings and could use a four/five starter with a Major League track record, even if that track record is mediocre?
-- @BRoy936

I certainly think starting pitching depth could be an issue. The Astros have a solid five-man rotation now with Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier, but it gets thin quickly. That has to be a concern during a 2021 season in which pitchers will be asked to throw more than twice as many innings as they did during last year’s 60-game regular season.

Beyond those five starters, Pruitt could make some starts once he’s healthy later in the year, and Josh James is coming off surgery, as well. Bielak was a starting pitcher throughout the Minor Leagues and the club is still high on him. Prospects Peter Solomon and Ivey will get their first look in Major League camp this year, and don’t forget about top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley. Other possible options are Garcia and Nivaldo Rodriguez, both of whom are on the 40-man roster.

Be honest, Brian. What should we fans expect out of this squad this year? After so much success, despite what anyone may say, what should we as fans be realistically expecting in terms of record?
-- @burl8893

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have Houston winning 93 games and winning the AL West. We had a roundtable at MLB.com this week in which I said how bullish I was on the Astros in the division. I think they’re the best team in the AL West, with the A’s having undergone significant losses. The PECOTA projections have the Angels being Houston's biggest contender in the AL West, with the A’s falling below .500. I see the Astros winning 92-95 games and winning their fourth division in five years.

Any thoughts on the new batting order without Springer at the top?
-- @EA_hambino

That’s a great question. When healthy, Springer has been the Astros’ leadoff hitter since May 24, 2016. Not having his impact bat at the top of the order will certainly be different, but what does Houston do? Springer hit leadoff 49 times last year, with Straw getting five starts in the leadoff spot and Jose Altuve and Kyle Tucker with three each. Baker is an old-school manager and might want the speedy Straw at the top. Or he might want his best hitter, meaning Altuve or Bregman. Analytics figure to have a say in this, as well, but the Astros have solid options in what should be a deep lineup.