Hinch will enjoy polished 'pen for repeat quest

Additions of Smith, Rondon improve on champs' only area of need

December 15th, 2017

HOUSTON -- As weeks go, the Astros haven't had a better once since, well, you know. This one wasn't quite as dramatic as that one. There were no bear hugs, no World Series trophy.

Still, the Astros were thrilled to sign a pair of relievers to shore up the only area of their team that had them concerned. First, they got free-agent right-hander Joe Smith off the market with a two-year, $15 million deal.

On Friday, they announced an agreement with former Cubs closer for two years and a reported $8.5 million.

"If we did nothing else, we'd be in great shape," said Brandon Taubman, Astros senior director of baseball operations. "But [general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] is always looking to improve the team. We feel really good about the state of our bullpen right now."

The Astros targeted a small group of free-agent relievers this offseason and made offers to lefty Mike Minor and righty , both of whom signed elsewhere (Rangers and Mets).

Rondon, 29, has appeared in at least 45 games every season of his career and had 59 saves from 2014-15 before the Cubs acquired, first, in '16 and in '17.

"It's hard to improve on our offense," Taubman said. "We saw an opportunity to bolster the bullpen, and Hector is one of the guys we identified early on."

Rondon became a free agent when the Cubs didn't tender him a contract and said he was happy things worked out with the Astros.

"I'm very blessed for the opportunity I have here," he said. "I won a championship [with the Cubs in 2016]. I want to win one here. I feel close to the group here. I've already felt a close connection."

He didn't have his best season in 2017, with a 4.24 ERA. But the Astros focused on his success against right-handed hitters (.280 OBP) and a career-high 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Funny thing about bullpens. The Astros believed they had one of the better ones in the Majors around midseason. Closer was solid, and manager A.J. Hinch had an assortment of power arms in front of him, including right-handers Joe Musgrove, and Will Harris.

Hinch managed their workloads carefully, but they were still out of gas by the postseason. Or maybe they picked a bad time to have a tough couple of weeks.

No single person was more important to the Astros winning the World Series than Hinch, who did a tremendous job juggling starters into relief roles in the postseason. Consider the following:

• Charlie Morton pitched the final four innings to win Game 7 of the World Series.

• Brad Peacock got a 3 2/3-inning save in Game 3 of the World Series.

pitched four shutout innings to save Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Now the Astros will bring that group back in 2018 with Smith and Rondon in the mix. In a perfect world, Luhnow would like to add a left-hander to the mix, although right-hander Devenski held left-handed hitters to a .111 batting average, best in the Majors.

Free agent lefty Tony Watson could be that man, but as Taubman said, the Astros would happily go to Spring Training with the current group.

Hinch expressed confidence this week that Giles would regain the form that helped him make good on 34 of 38 save chances during the 2017 regular season before hitting a speed bump or two in the postseason.

"Ken Giles will be fine," Hinch said. "I think in our sport we can get a little bit narrow-minded when it comes to maybe what a guy's recently done and say that's going to automatically define him, probably both good or bad. And the longer look at Ken Giles, he's been a very effective reliever. He's a good closer.

"He had a rough stretch on the national stage in front of a large audience, but it doesn't make him any less equipped to be an elite closer. I think his stuff is top notch across the board. I think it was frustrating for him in the World Series to not be delivering the outs that he delivered during the season, but emotionally, physically we expect him to be fine. I expect him to be elite again."

He expects the same thing of his bullpen as a whole.