added 2/25/2015 by Greg Thurston
Astros Spring Training is officially under way and I couldn't be happier. There are plenty of new faces in camp this year and beat writers Evan Drellich and Brian McTaggart have beefed up their coverage in the early going. Articles, tweets, and instagrams are popping up at a record pace. And why not? For the first time in several years, there's reason for Astros fans to be excited.
With pitchers and catchers reporting a few days ahead of the position players, a lot of the early talk has been about the closer position. Who will be asked to take the mound in the ninth inning when the Astros are nursing a small lead? Last year's closer, Chad Qualls, may not even be the favorite for the job. First year manager A.J. Hinch says he has an idea of how he wants things to shake out but adds that he may change his mind several times along the way. Hinch says there isn't going to be a competition for the closer's job during Spring Training. He refers to it as more of an "alignment".
Veterans Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were added via free agency during the offseason and are expected to team with Qualls to cover the late innings. Exactly who covers the seventh, eighth, and ninth has yet to be determined. Qualls has the most ninth inning experience but Gregerson will be paid twice as much as the incumbent ($6 million compared to Qualls' $3 million). With a 2015 salary of $5.5 million, Neshek is also in a higher tax bracket. The stats are also in favor of the two newcomers. Both finished the 2014 season with an ERA more than a full run better than Qualls. In addition, both Gregerson and Neshek posted a better WHIP and pitched in more innings than the Astros closer.
The bottom line is, this is a great problem to have. If all three right-handers can stay healthy and come anywhere close to repeating last year's performance, the Astros bullpen should be drastically improved. Add in lefty Tony Sipp and the rest of the supporting cast and this year's 'pen could actually turn out to be a strength, rather than a weakness.
One pitcher I'm going to be keeping an eye on is Josh Fields. Although the 29-year old has been more of an afterthought in the closer's conversation thus far, I expect Fields to force his way into that conversation soon. A slow start to the 2014 season resulted in a brief demotion to AAA for Fields and hurt his overall numbers. But a second half surge by the former Rule 5 pick gives reason for optimism.
Despite his slow start, Fields finished the season with the best FIP (2.09) and K/9 IP (11.5) on the staff. Posting a 2.75 ERA after June 3rd, Josh was arguably the Astros' most reliable reliever down the stretch run. Bo Porter and Tom Lawless seemed to agree with that assessment as Josh's total of 54 & 2/3 innings pitched for the season were tops among Astros relievers. Fields was also outstanding at keeping the ball in the park. Josh gave up only two home runs all year, a stark improvement over the eight longballs he allowed in his rookie season of 2013.
A tight left hamstring forced Fields to push his first bullpen session of the Spring to Tuesday instead of Monday. Josh was able to go full speed and said he felt fine after throwing. If healthy, Fields appears to be poised for a big year. A repeat of last season's second half performance could go a long way towards further stabilizing an Astros bullpen that should be the best we've seen in quite a few years. And at some point this season, Fields just might be the closer.