12/14/10 6:47 PM EST
Astros feel confident with bullpen depth
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
There's experienced closers Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom and up-and-coming Wilton Lopez at the back end. There's hungry youngsters Mark Melancon, Fernando Abad, Cesar Carillo and Henry Villar and veterans Jeff Fulchino, Wesley Wright and Alberto Arias, who's recovered from last season's surgery.
That group of arms -- and probably a few others who will be added to the mix in the next two months -- will come to Spring Training to compete for spots in what Wade hopes is a strong bullpen to go behind what was a pretty solid rotation in the second half of last season.
"I think the importance of a bullpen can never be overstated," Wade said. "I just think that with so few complete games occurring, that you've got to be able to cover a lot of innings and you've got to be able to cover them with quality."
The Astros ranked 13th in the 16-team National League last season with a bullpen ERA of 4.49, which certainly leaves room for improvement. Wade hopes the competition for bullpen jobs will bring out the best in the relief corps in 2011.
Lindstrom and Lyon both saved 20 games last season, with Lindstrom beginning the year as the closer and Lyon finishing it after Lindstrom's back struggles hurt his command. Lopez emerged as a key bullpen piece and went 5-2 with a 2.96 ERA in 68 games.
"The back end was in good shape last year and we think it will be in good shape in 2011," Wade said. "We do think we've got some good arms, good competitors to cover the fifth through the eighth inning."
Fulchino was 2-1 with a 5.51 ERA in 50 appearances last season and struggled with some injury problems, though he couldn't quite match his 2009 breakout season. Melancon, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman trade, was 2-0 with a 3.12 ERA in 20 games with the Astros, and Wade admitted the club has toyed with the possibility of making him a starter.
Arias, who missed all of last season after going 2-1 with a 3.35 ERA in 42 games in 2009, has recovered from April surgery to repair his right rotator cuff and will be back in the mix for a job. Wright -- who, along with Abad are currently the only two left-handers in the mix -- bounced between Triple-A Round Rock and the Majors last season and had a 5.73 ERA for the Astros in 14 games (four starts).
Sammy Gervacio, the side-arming right-hander who dazzled early in the season, is still battling health problems.
The Astros parted ways with veteran lefties Tim Byrdak and Gustavo Chacin last month to save some money, but Wade said the club has had discussions with the agents for both players about bringing them back in 2011. Wade is also looking for other left-handed options on the market.
"We're open-minded, and some of it is payroll related and we've articulated that to Byrdak's agent," Wade said.
Abad, who posted a 2.84 ERA in 22 games last season, and Villar, who appeared in only eight games after being called up from Double-A Corpus Christi, will both be in the mix for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, though they could both wind up in the bullpen, too. Abad is currently being used as a starter in winter ball.
Veteran Nelson Figueroa, who will also compete for the rotation, could wind up as the swingman in the bullpen if he doesn't make the rotation. The Astros claimed right-hander Cesar Carrillo off waivers and plan to give him a look, and right-hander Enerio Del Rosario will get a shot in Spring Training to show what he can do.
"You can never have enough arms, but we realize as we sit here now that if we had to go to Spring Training and start it up tomorrow, we've got the components in place to be able to put a good bullpen together," Wade said.
As far as the closer situation is concerned, Wade said the job will be up for grabs between Lindstrom and Lyon like it was last year.
"That's the beauty of where we are," he said. "We had two guys last year who had 20 or more saves and we've got Wilton, who we think has closer capability. I think we go into Spring Training in the same mindset we had a year ago before Lyon fell behind because of having the cyst aspirated in his shoulder.
"If you've got more than one guy with the ability to go out there and handle the job, you can mix and match, use the hot hand or use it in a matchup situation, depending on the hitters coming up in the ninth or which pitcher had success against those hitters. Hopefully, everybody is healthy and competing and they show they have the capability and deserve to get the ball at the back end of games."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.