By Gershon Rabinowitz (of @themlbtalk101)
The Houston Astros continued their goal of moving past the futility of the 2013 season on Tuesday with the signing of free agent reliever Jesse Crain to a one-year contract. Crain, a Houston native joins an overhauled bullpen, featuring free agent signings Matt Albers and Chad Qualls. Crain spent the last three seasons with the Chicago White Sox, compiling a strikeout rate of more than one batter per nine.
The first half of the 31 year old’s 2013 campaign resulted in his first All-Star appearance, after allowing just three earned runs in 36.2 innings of work, bridging the gap to the recently departed Addison Reed. Crain’s season came to a premature end in June, when the right hander began to feel pain in his shoulder. The injury did not discourage the Tampa Bay Rays who traded a non-prospect for Crain at the trade deadline in hopes of solidifying the back end of the bullpen. Crain, however did not see any action for the Rays and was kept off the postseason roster.
Following a league worst 51-111 finish, the Houston Astros entered the offseason determined to make subtle improvements without losing sight of the rebuilding process. The signings of control artists Scott Feldman and Colin McHugh allowed the club to sever ties with former 2008 first round draft pick Jordan Lyles.
The 23-year old was sent to the Colorado Rockies for dynamic center fielder Dexter Fowler. The Astros are hoping that these stopgap additions will allow the organization extra development time for a farm system which is slowly becoming one of baseball’s finest under former Cardinals Assistant General Manager Jeff Luhnow.
The Astros spent heavily in the draft on pitching; in particular recent draft picks Mark Appel and Lance McCullers Jr. Pitchers Brett Oberholtzer and Jarred Cosart have graduated to the Major League level and seek to anchor the starting rotation. The signing of Jesse Crain provides the Astros with a proven commodity, who will be instrumental in assisting fellow relievers Joshua Fields and Chia-Jen Lo.
The recent use of advanced metrics in the game of baseball helps us determine the value of previously unheralded players. Prior to his debilitating shoulder injury in June, Crain was the second most valuable White Sox player with a Wins-Above Replacement (WAR) ranking of 2.4, according to Baseball-Reference.com, trailing only ace southpaw Chris Sale. In addition, Crain’s SO/BB was an astonishing 4.18. Most surprising was the fact that Crain’s WAR rivaled recently retired Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who finished just a hair ahead of Crain at 2.5 in said category.
The previous referenced stat certainly does not indicate that Crain is as valuable as the greatest relief pitcher in the history of the game, but it displays the ability he possesses in high leverage situations which some may debate occur more frequently in the eighth inning as opposed to the ninth. Some may wonder what it means to a ballclub that dropped nearly two thirds of their 2013 contests.
Crain’s exploits in limited action last season serve as a reminder of his ability when healthy. Aside from his 2007 season, Crain has proven to be one of the most durable relievers in baseball.
The Astros believe that Crain is worthy gamble that at best is capable of protecting rare leads in Houston. Crain also provides a valuable trade chip for Jeff Luhnow and the Astros, who appear to be mired in the basement of the AL West for yet another season.