Astros reliever Smith ruptures Achilles tendon
Veteran undergoes surgery; expected to miss 6-8 months
HOUSTON -- The Astros' bullpen plan for 2019 took a hit on Thursday with the team's announcement that right-hander Joe Smith had surgery after rupturing his left Achilles tendon, but president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow doesn't view this loss as a signal that the club needs to spend big on a free-agent reliever.
"Losing Joe is a blow, but I don't think it requires us to go out and get another late-inning reliever," Luhnow said. "We're going to have enough good arms in the bullpen to do what we need to do."
The 34-year-old Smith sustained the injury in a recent workout, according to the Astros. The Achilles tear is similar to what All-Star closer Zach Britton sustained in December 2017, and he did not return to a Major League mound until this past June. The Astros project a similar timeline of six to eight months for Smith's recovery.
Luhnow said he expects Smith to return sometime in the second half of the season, with enough time to get ready for games in September and October.
"It's really half a season [without] Joe Smith, which is a lot, but we have quite a few pitchers in our mix," Luhnow said.
Who fills Smith's role will largely depend on how the starting rotation shakes out. Beyond co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the starting staff has openings. Right-hander Collin McHugh is expected to rejoin the rotation, and Luhnow is scouring the market hoping to find another starting pitcher to add to the mix.
Josh James and Framber Valdez had limited starting experience in 2018, but they could also help in the back end of the bullpen. Cionel Perez and Triple-A pitcher Rogelio Armenteros, who pitched to a 3.74 ERA over 22 games (21 starts) last season, are also bullpen candidates. They have options remaining on their contracts and could be valuable pieces if the Astros take a mix-and-match approach with pitchers who can shuffle from Triple-A to the Majors.
Luhnow's comfort with the organization's pitching depth likely means the Astros won't try to fill Smith's role with one of the higher-priced relievers currently available on the free-agent market. Player Page for David Robertson, Britton, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Craig Kimbrel are still unsigned.
"We're still going to look at pitching, but we're primarily focused on starting pitching," Luhnow said. "Every starting pitcher we get pushes one of our current starters into the bullpen. We're not really concerned about the bullpen depth at this point."
Still, losing Smith is no small thing. A valuable side-winding righty who held right-handers to a .214 average last season, Smith recorded a 3.74 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP over 56 appearances, spanning 45 2/3 innings.
Smith was left off the American League Division Series roster, but he was added for the AL Championship Series, which the Astros lost to the Red Sox in five games.
The 2019 season will be the final year of a two-year contract worth $15 million. He will earn $8 million in '19.
"He's been a late-inning reliever for competitive teams for many, many years now, and he's also a leader in our bullpen," Luhnow said. "He's going to be around, so I'm not worried that he won't be around to influence our younger guys. But he's not going to be able to pitch for us for a while, which is unfortunate. He's been one of the best right-on-right pitchers in the game for several years and we're going to miss that."