What does a team that finished with the worst record in Major League Baseball last year need most?
Naturally, it's a closer.
When the Houston Astros dealt Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland last December, they seemed to acknowledge the relative value of a reliever as well as capitalize on Melancon's breakthrough campaign as his club's ninth-inning man. They acquired a player who could end up being their everyday shortstop right away, in addition to a right-hander who might fill a backend spot in their rotation sometime soon.
Houston also created a void of sorts. Who would close? They decided to answer that question with a right-handed starter who pitched 439 2/3 innings in the past two seasons and finished 10th in the voting for the Cy Young Award in 2010: Brett Myers.
The team's new GM, Jeff Luhnow told the club's official site that the move was a topic of debate for some time between him, skipper Bradley Mills and pitching coach Doug Brocail. Luhnow believes that his outfit has plenty of depth among its starters and not enough choices in the bullpen. He sees value in taking care of Brandon Lyon, who's coming off shoulder surgery and was the early favorite to close, and their other young relief pitchers.
It's an interesting choice, to protect those youngsters. Wilton Lopez, 28, has posted sub-3.00 ERAs in each of the past two years and has become one of Mills' most trusted relievers. David Carpenter, 26, registered a 2.93 ERA in 27 2/3 frames for the Astors last year. He brings mid-90s heat (which Myers, 32, probably can't any longer) and three years of experience as a part-time closer in the minor leagues. Do they really need to be shielded?
Then there's Juan Abreu, who'll be 27 in April. He struggles with control problems, but he's somewhat consistently beaten his FIP marks in the minors, according to FanGraphs, in large part because he can fan nine batters or so per nine innings - gracias, mid- to upper-90s fastball. Wesley Wright, 27, has a lifetime 8.92 K/9 in the bigs and finally appears to be reining in his BB/9. He could prove to be a quality asset as well.
(I might be leaving someone out. If you're related to a Houston hurler whom you think is better than Brandon Lyon, my sincere apologies.)
And then, of course, there's Lyon. He had surgery at the end of June to reattach his right biceps and repair some kind of tear in the labrum in his right shoulder. The Astros must be concerned that they can't rely on him, at least from the outset. He's building arm strength, however, and he had ERAs of around 3.00 in three of the four years prior to last season. He has 78 career saves. He isn't good, but hey, he'll do, won't he? And, according to Cot's Contracts (at its fairly new home, Baseball Prospectus), he's going to make $5.5 million this season, his last of a three-year deal.
Oh yeah. Then there's the money.
There's no relyin' on Lyon here
A team with no dreams of contending turned a starter making $11 million in 2012 into its closer. Houston was shopping Myers this winter, but they got no bites. Perhaps the change in role gives Myers a greater chance to succeed, and thus, to become more appealing to buyers. But not with a $10 million vesting option based on an unknown number of games finished.
If Myers stinks, he won't hit the mark, but no one will want him. If he's good this year, he should hit the number. What will Houston do with him next year, then? If he's on track to hit it and he's traded, the new club is highly unlikely to be willing to let him reach that figure and be on the hook for $10 mil. Somebody is going to be pissed. Is something like that enough to be "MLBPA grievance" pissed, or did Houston work all that out with Myers ahead of time?
So, who'll join Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris in the Astros' starting five? J.A. Happ seems like a lock. Henry Sosa, Jordan Lyles, Weiland and - I guess - Lucas Harrell will probably be competing for one spot. That's because, now, either Livan Hernandez or Zach Duke, each on a minor league deal (and thus, likely, overpaid), will probably take one of the others and rob one of the young fellas of an opportunity. Never mind that each of those young fellas is of questionable big-league quality anyway. None of the organization's highly rated prospects is on the cusp of his debut, either.
What purpose do Hernandez and Duke serve if the Astros have a lot of depth? Myers probably has more value to them as a starter, particularly if he bounces back to somewhere between 2010 and 2011. How will Houston know if any of its other young arms is capable of closing? If they want more options in the bullpen, they should take Sosa. He seems destined to end up there anyway.
It looks like a decision to fix an immediate yet minor problem, one that would probably have led to inconsequential outcomes in the grand scheme of the team's plan to rebuild. Who, really, are the Astros protecting?
Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.
The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.