Astros peer inward for bullpen boost

January 14th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

By reaching deals with six of their seven arbitration-eligible players on Thursday, the Astros will have one arbitration case to resolve in the coming weeks. The team couldn’t come to agreement with utility player Mauricio Dubón, who filed for $3.5 million and was offered $3 million by the Astros.

The six players who came agreements -- left-handed pitcher Framber Valdez ($12.1 million); outfielders Kyle Tucker ($12 million) and Chas McCormick ($2.85 million); and right-handed pitchers José Urquidy ($3.75 million), Luis Garcia ($1.85 million) and Bryan Abreu ($1.75 million) -- will cost the Astros $34.3 million against their 2024 payroll, which now comes into clearer focus.

According to the latest estimates by FanGraphs, the Astros’ 2024 payroll is projecting to be under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $237 million, though the actual number is determined after the season. Astros owner Jim Crane is willing to go over the threshold, so the club still has some flexibility add to the bullpen.

The three relief pitchers from the 2023 team who are free agents -- Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek -- combined to throw 185 innings last year, which accounted for about one-third of Houston’s bullpen workload. Astros general manager Dana Brown said last month that he’s “not interested in overpaying in the reliever market,” and that the team will have to rely on internal options to fill some key bullpen roles.

Even if the Astros add one more reliever to the back end to join Ryan Pressly, Abreu, Rafael Montero and Kendall Graveman, multiple pitchers already on the roster will need to step up. The Astros had an interest in hard-throwing Jordan Hicks, a Houston-area product, but weren’t willing to go beyond two years. Hicks agreed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Giants, a source told executive reporter Mark Feinsand. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hicks will be used as a starter.

The Astros added a reliever -- right-hander Dylan Coleman -- in a trade with the Royals at the Winter Meetings, so he’ll be in the competition for bullpen innings, along with righties Ronel Blanco, Seth Martinez, Forrest Whitley, Shawn Dubin and Oliver Ortega, and lefties Matt Gage, Bennett Sousa and Parker Mushinski.

Of that group, Whitley is a name to watch. The team’s former top prospect and a 2016 first-round Draft pick, Whitley has thrown only 267 innings in his Minor League career, thanks to a suspension, the pandemic and a series of injuries, including Tommy John surgery two years ago and a shoulder injury last season. He still throws heat and could be a weapon if things come together.

Depending on how the rotation shakes out, J.P. France or Urquidy could wind up in the bullpen to start the season, and the Astros could always address upgrades to the bullpen at the Trade Deadline, as they did in 2023 (Graveman), 2022 (Will Smith) and 2021 (Graveman, Montero and Maton).