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Joel Blank: Astros need to address bullpen issues right now

Ken Giles has not been good. Al Bello/Getty Images

Everything is magnified after you win a World Series. Little things seem like big problems, and the fanbase has their finger on the panic button with every pitch, any lost lead, and every blown save. For all that premature pessimism and overreaction, there also comes a time when you need to address an ongoing area of concern before it’s too late. For the Houston Astros, it’s the inconsistent and less than stellar bullpen.

We all know by now that it is totally unfair to compare last years’ team with this season’s squad.  Too many variables change—from the roster to the schedule to the talent level and player additions to the opposing teams. So, as hard as it is to compare teams from year to year, it’s inevitable to compare individual performers and their year-to-year production. When you look at the relief pitchers of the Astros last year,  you know and remember it was a tale of two seasons. The regular season consisted of steady, reliable performances by an above average staff with All-Star worthy stars. The postseason was a different story, with slip ups creating a lack of trust and eventually a completely different approach, as starters became relievers and even closers.

I know there are people out there who love analytics and throw out there how the numbers don’t lie and the pen and closer are statistically one of, if not the best in baseball. That's where the eye test comes in as well as the ulcer test. If you don’t feel confident when that phone call is made to the pen and your gut turns out to be right and leads are blown, then it goes deeper than any statistic. Former All-Stars Chris Devenski and Will Harris have been inconsistent at best and Brad Peacock has fallen off from his stellar campaign of a year ago, recently giving up walk off hits in two straight outings. Newcomers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon haven’t gotten off to expected starts and the closer role remains an open audition after Ken Giles lost the job during last year’s playoffs. He’s inconsistent and flammable this year as his only knockout punch has been his haymaker to his own jaw, not his 100 mph fastball.

His ERA is now at 5.21 and that is not good for an average reliever, let alone a contending teams closer. It's getting more obvious by the game that this group is not getting better and the overall problem is not getting fixed. Houston is fourth in the majors in bullpen ERA at 3.02 and are now 4-11 in one run games and 1-4 in extra inning games. To add to that miserable, sinking feeling, they are also hovering around 19th in win probability added, so times are tough and getting tougher by the game. The time is now for Jeff Luhnow and his staff to go out and make a move, if not two, to bolster his bullpen and spark his ballclub while there is still time.

This team is too good, it's starting pitching too dominant, for there to be a weakness of this magnitude. If this was the 100-loss Astros, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but it's not. This is the World Champion Astros we are talking about, who have a legitimate shot to repeat as the best team in baseball. The fanbase has been patient and so have the players, as everyone hoped that the relievers would work their way into form. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened and the time is now to fix the issues before it’s too late.

Jeff Luhnow has been fantastic as he has pushed all the right buttons and made all the right moves to put this team in a position to not only be successful, but to win and win big. This year should be no different as teams are gunning for the champs and trying to make a statement by taking them down. You don't need a last minute Justin Verlander blockbuster to save the day, but you do need a few quality arms to make sure you give your team the best chance to succeed. Even it means tapping into the farm system and emptying a few of your players of the future, the time is now and you only get so many chances to legitimately compete for a crown. The trade deadline isn't until next month, but the sooner the better, so get to work Jeff, and give H-town the added arms and much needed relief the entire city needs.

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Should Watson be in the MVP conversation? Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2020 NFL season has a lot going on. Even if we take the coronavirus out of it, there's still a lot to digest. There are so many great performances being put up, one can make an argument for several players to win league MVP. The quarterback position typically gets more credit than others. If I restrict the argument to quarterbacks only, we're looking at Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers. Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and Derrick Henry are the leading contenders at running back. On defense, there really isn't a standout defender. The defense gets no love, but there are several guys in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Deshaun Watson has been putting up numbers that have matched or rivaled some of the top MVP candidates over his last seven games. That stretch has coincided with the firing of head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien. Coincidence? I think not. Taking the reigns off a wild horse can often lead to said horse running free and flourishing! So question: Should Watson be getting league MVP considerations? I think so.

For starters, he's been one of the best players in the league over the course of the last seven games. 18 passing touchdowns and only two interceptions. The only quarterback with a better touchdown to interception ratio over that same span is Mahomes (19 and 2, as opposed to Watson's 18 & 2). Factoring in total season stats, of course Mahomes is doing much better. He's on a better team with a much better coach and general manager. The same could be said for Wilson and Rodgers. Put Watson on any of those teams and their records wouldn't be any worse than what they are now.

The Texans are 4-3 since firing O'Brien. While that isn't a great record, consider the fact they started the season 0-4 and looked like a total disaster. Watson looked like he was caged and couldn't wait to be freed. The team's record could be even better if the defense had a pulse. The proper supporting cast has a lot to do with a player's MVP candidate's chances. Now that one of his favorite weapons, Will Fuller, and the team's best corner, Bradley Roby, are both suspended for the rest of the season by the league for violating the substance abuse/PED policy, things will get much tougher for Watson.

If he continues to put up these cartoon like numbers, I don't see why he wouldn't be in the MVP conversation. He's currently fopurth in passing yards, sixth in completion percentage, tied for fifth in passing touchdowns, eighth in QBR, and third in quarterback rating. Watson is emerging as the star he was projected to be coming into the 2017 draft. I'm not saying Watson deserves to be the league MVP, but he deserves to be in the conversation. His MVP candidacy should be treated like the family gathering hierarchy: once you reach a certain age and/or status, you're no longer resigned to the kiddie table. Now you get to sit with all the adults, engage in their conversations, and gain access to things you couldn't previously. Watson won't win the MVP award, but I strongly believe he could finish top five. Especially if he keeps making lemonade with the lemons he's been given.

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