Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

When star players hit the free-agent market, the natural inclination is to identify a contending team with an explicit need at the star’s position. In theory, these would be the teams most incentivized to reel in a big fish to address a glaring hole on the depth chart. In the case of Josh Hader, the exact opposite materialized. 

The 29-year-old left-hander, certifiably one of the best closers of his generation, reportedly agreed to a five-year, $95 million deal with the Houston Astros, a team that already boasts one of the league’s most accomplished game-enders in Ryan Pressly. In addition to his unexpected fit on the roster, Hader’s deal represents a level of aggression owner Jim Crane had previously not exhibited on the open market. It is both the longest and most lucrative free-agent deal handed out by Houston since Crane assumed ownership of the franchise in 2011, not to mention the most money any team has ever committed up front to a closer. 

Hader’s $19 million average annual value also pushes the Astros’ projected payroll over the first competitive balance tax line, something they have only done once under Crane. In addition, the club will forfeit its second-round pick in the 2024 draft as well as $500,000 of international bonus-pool money for signing a free agent who rejected the qualifying offer. 

All of which is to say: This is a fairly stunning agreement for both player and team. 

Committing long term to a relief pitcher is a massive risk in and of itself. But a move like this means more than what Hader himself can bring to the table, or how his production projects in the later stages of his new contract. By securing and forfeiting future assets, this is a direct acknowledgment that there’s no time like the present for a team with massive organizational questions looming on the horizon — namely, the impending free agencies of José Altuve and Alex Bregman next winter. That’s not to say Houston doesn’t have the talent to succeed beyond a time when Bregman and Altuve remain on the roster, or that one or both of those two won’t ultimately stick around long term. 

There’s a chance, however, that this upcoming season is the final chapter of a certain era of Astros baseball, one that the organization cannot afford to take lightly. And while 2023 featured a seventh straight trip to the American League Championship Series, it also was the first time in a long time that Houston’s firm grip on the AL West loosened. After being eliminated by their in-state rival Rangers, the pressure was on entering the offseason to restore the roster back to powerhouse status.

To be fair, Houston had bullpen innings to backfill. In addition to a combined 195 appearances (and 185 innings) from Hector Neris, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek leaving in free agency, the Astros also recently lost right-hander Kendall Graveman for all of 2024 to shoulder surgery. But it seemed more likely they’d target middle or lower-tier veteran relievers to replace the departed arms, or simply rely on some of their younger pitchers internally to transition into high-leverage relief roles. Instead, Houston went straight to the top of the market and opted to supercharge its bullpen rather than just supplement it. 

Since the start of the 2020 season, Hader (116) and Pressly (102) rank second and fourth respectively in saves. But for as good as Pressly looked this past October — he still has an active streak stretching back to 2021 of 20 consecutive postseason appearances without allowing an earned run — he did demonstrate some signs of decline in the regular season. His 3.58 ERA and 3.36 FIP were the highest marks, and his 27.6% strikeout rate the lowest, since 2017. Though this level of performance hardly screams out for a replacement, Hader does technically represent an upgrade — just as he would over 95% of relievers. Still, even having turned 35 in December, Pressly is still widely considered one of the best at his position entering 2024.

And for all that will be made of Hader joining forces with another venerable game-ender in Pressly, let’s not lose sight of who else still lurks in Houston’s bullpen: Bryan Abreu, who finished the 2023 regular season with 27 consecutive scoreless outings and emerged as one of baseball’s most fearsome righty relievers in his own right. Abreu’s 1.84 ERA ranks fourth among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched over the past two seasons. If anything, Abreu looked to be the obvious heir to Pressly’s ninth-inning throne in the coming years. Instead, he’ll continue to terrorize opposing batters in the seventh and eighth innings, if not even earlier.

On paper, that’s quite the luxury for new manager Joe Espada as he takes the helm following Dusty Baker’s retirement. At the same time, with two Capital-C closers to choose from, it’ll be fascinating to see how Espada chooses to deploy them and how he manages expectations for what their roles will be on a nightly basis. Even by modern closer standards, their usage has been about as rigid as you’ll find across the league, and now that’s going to change for at least one of them. Before he became a closer in 2020, Pressly had plenty of late-inning success for both the Twins and Astros. Perhaps he settles back into a setup role of sorts; perhaps he and Hader alternate save opportunities based on matchups.

It will certainly help that Espada has already been on the Astros staff since 2018 and is plenty familiar with Pressly, so these conversations should be far easier than if Espada was coming in as a total outsider. Pressly was also reportedly fully on board with the Hader addition when Espada and general manager Dana Brown broached the idea with him in recent weeks. Still, it’s a unique clubhouse dynamic to monitor as the season approaches — and a fascinating strategic storyline to watch once games begin. 

While Houston’s run of dominance at or near the top of the American League has been headlined by offensive stars like Altuve and Yordan Álvarez (among many others), its most recent championship in 2022 was built on a foundation of fantastic relief pitchers led by Pressly and Abreu. It was a unit that saw its performance peak in October in spectacular fashion, setting MLB records for lowest ERA (0.83), WHIP (0.75), and BAA (.126) by a bullpen in a single postseason (minimum 35 innings). 

Replicating a playoff run like that might seem unrealistic, but adding Hader makes visions of a similar recipe for postseason success seem all the more plausible. This is a sport, after all, that is asking less of its starting pitchers than ever before. At the very least, Hader bolsters a roster that no longer stands head and shoulders above its competition in the AL West, and gives the Astros more star power on which to rely upon over the course of the regular season. 

In a notably slow offseason that has mostly been defined by caution and restraint by teams not named the Dodgers, credit to the Astros for acting boldly to add an elite player — even one they didn’t seem to need. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_. 

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