Astros sign Houston product Crain to bolster bullpen
Right-hander joins club on one-year deal after making ’13 All-Star team with White Sox
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com | 12/31/2013 5:54 P.M. ET
HOUSTON — After watching his team struggle to hold leads late in games last season, especially following the trade of closer Jose Veras to the Tigers, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow had no bigger assignment this offseason than improving the bullpen.
With that in mind, the Astros signed veterans Chad Qualls and Matt Albers — both of whom were drafted by the team — earlier this month, and on Tuesday put the wraps on 2013 by agreeing to terms on a one-year contract with right-hander Jesse Crain, who played at the University of Houston and lives in the area with his family.
“It’s exciting,” Crain said. “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into with family and friends and all that. We’re real excited to spend time at home. Having three young kids definitely played a huge decision in signing here.”
Crain was an All-Star in a 2013 season in which he posted a 0.74 ERA in 38 games with the White Sox, striking out 46 and walking only 11 batters in 36 2/3 innings, including a 29-innings scoreless streak. He didn’t pitch after being traded to the Rays on July 29 because of biceps tendinitis that eventually required surgery, but he could be ready for Opening Day.
“I think there’s a chance,” he said. “But obviously that would be awesome if I could do that. Like I said, having this [signing] past us and getting a contract, I’m going to work on being healthy and moving on from there. It’s better to take your time up front and make sure you’re healthy instead of trying to rush through it.”
Crain said he’ll start throwing in the next two weeks.
“I feel good about the time table he’s on, and he’ll be able to contribute for a vast majority or all of the season,” Luhnow said.
Crain, 32, will join Qualls, Albers, Anthony Bass, Darin Downs and Raul Valdes as newcomers to an Astros relief corps that has been revamped over the course of the last few weeks. In 2013, the Astros ranked last in the Majors with a 4.92 bullpen ERA, and their 29 blown saves tied for the most.
“When [Crain] is healthy, he’s as good as it gets out of the bullpen,” Luhnow said. “This definitely shores up one of our big weaknesses of the team last year, which was the bullpen. I like our young guys, but I feel adding experienced relievers will help with their development and help them mature and help us win some games.”
The Astros got an extended look last season at several rookie relievers who will be competing for spots next spring — a list that includes Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, Chia-Jen Lo and Josh Fields. Unlike last year, the Astros will have depth and experience in the bullpen, but it remains to be seen who will close games.
Crain was the closer at UH in 2002 and closed throughout the Minor Leagues, but he never got the chance at Minnesota with Joe Nathan entrenched in that role.
“That’s something I always wanted to do,” he said. “I did it all the way up until I came to the big leagues … Sometimes when you’re good at a role, they don’t want to kind of take you out of it, and that’s where I was with the White Sox, and I never got a chance to do that. If you look at my career, I’ve thrown two or maybe three times in the ninth inning in save situations. It’s something I would love to get an opportunity to try.”
Fields and Lo briefly handled the closer’s role last year, and none of the veterans the team has obtained have much experience as closers in the Major Leagues.
“I think it will take all spring to figure that out,” Luhnow said. “We’ll leave that up to [manager] Bo [Porter] and has staff. There’s certainly plenty of innings to go around, and we have some good arms. There should be a good, healthy competition, and that includes the young guys from last year.”
In 10 Major League seasons with the Twins (2004-10) and White Sox (2011-13), Crain has posted a 45-30 record with four saves in 532 appearances (all in relief) with a 3.05 ERA and a .229 opponents’ average. His 45 wins in relief since his debut in 2004 are tied with Qualls for tops in the Majors in that span.
“As far as the last three or four years, I feel like I’ve gotten better every single year,” Crain said. “Last year, I started throwing my curveball more and showed some good results. Before, I had my slider, and that’s usually what I was known for. I was in the AL Central for 9 1/2 years, which is a long time, so you try to do new things and show something different. That’s what I tried to do last year.”
Crain played at both San Jacinto Junior College in Houston and UH, earning all-conference honors at both schools. He was taken in the second round of the 2002 Draft by the Twins and made his Major League debut two years later.
After revamping the bullpen, trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler and signing veteran starting pitcher Scott Feldman, the Astros’ 40-man roster is full. They appear to be finished with their major moves, but Luhnow said some things could still happen.
“We’re talking to some teams about trades and are still in touch with some free agents, but at this point, we feel good about what we’ve accomplished,” Luhnow said. “We’ll continue to be opportunistic, and if something developed we felt could improve our team, we’re not going to be hesitant to do it.”