The Runner Sports

Closers: Astros Keeping Prospects? Luhnow Could Bring Pain With “The Big Hoyt”

Spoiler Alert! Call me madcap, but while everyone and their respective grandmothers are all but validating Aroldis Chapman’s boarding pass to Houston (although, at press time, reports had the Dodgers and others still vying, with alleged off-field incidents apparently looming), a huge, 29-year-old power closer is lurking down on the farm!

In fact, at the moment he’s blowing away his peers in Winter Ball, wearing the uniform of the Cardenales de Lara (Lara Cardinals) in MLB’s Venezuela Professional Baseball League.

Related: Astros’ ROY Carlos Correa on Winter League Roster

With Baseball’s Winter Meetings this week in Nashville, it’s likely (reportedly) that Houston’s brass, led by GM Jeff Luhnow, will pull the trigger on a move to bring a big money closer (and another bullpen arm) in exchange for a handful of highly touted prospects.

The Astros have been linked to trading the farm (or key prospects therein) for one of the following: The Yankees’ Andrew Miller, the Nats’ Drew Storen, the Rays’ Brad Boxberger, and the Phillies’ Ken Giles, all proven, lights-out closers, and doubtless worth whatever prospects are agreed upon.

The Astros have slowly nurtured their recent high draft picks into a widely coveted minor league farm system, and just ’cause ya got ’em, doesn’t mean you have to trade ’em!

In the case of an apparently needed closer (and I’m not convinced they actually need one), they’ve had one in the fold for a year—he was a “throw-in” in the trade that brought Houston DH Evan Gattis from Atlanta last January: 6’5″ (some sources list him as 6’6″), 220-pound right-handed closer James “The Big” Hoyt.

He’s routinely around 95 mph on his fastball, and he features a slider, as well, that’s been described by scouts as “devastating” and a “wipeout.” Thrown from his long frame, he’s got a high-angle leverage that is also an obvious advantage. To be sure, the role of closer is a high-pressure position, and a rare psychological make-up is needed to go with impressive physical attributes.

But, if the prospect price is deemed too high by Luhnow, would he be willing to roll the dice, eschew acquiring one of the big names, and give a shot to some of the highly touted farmhands, like #6-rated Astro prospect RHP Michael Feliz, righty Francis Martes (#7), or Hoyt?

Feliz and Martes, both, are highly sought-after by teams dangling the aforementioned high-end closers, and both were almost exclusively starters at AA Corpus Christi in 2015, but both have the stuff to close, especially Martes, with a mid-90s heater.

About 2/3 of the way through his Winter League stint, through games of December 3, Hoyt has pitched 19.1 innings in 19 games, and has worked to a 1.86 ERA with 9 saves and a 1-2 record. His K-to-walk ratio is where it should be at 26-5, with a batting-average-against of .208, with below a hit an inning at 15.

Of particular note is his home run yield to date: One. Innocuous at first glance, but giving up the long ball has been an area of concern for Hoyt in the past, and it could be he’s mastered pitching away from (at least) deep contact.

A circuitous route to the Astros began at Palomar College in San Diego County, leading to a transfer to Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. Undrafted after graduating, Hoyt found a 2011 home with the Yuma Scorpions of the North American League. The next year found him occupying locker rooms with three teams in three different leagues, including the aforementioned NABL (for the Edinburg, TX , Roadrunners), the Wichita Wingnuts of the American Association, and Tobasco of the Mexican League.

It was in Tobasco where Hoyt was spotted and signed, in 2012, by the Atlanta Braves to a free agent minor league contract.

At the time, Hoyt reflected, “I was pretty excited just to get that opportunity. It took me a while to get there.”

In his 49 innings pitched for the Astros’ Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies in 2015, the Idaho native finished with a 3.49 ERA, and converted 9 out of 12 save opportunities. His 6-1 K/BB ratio was, again, impressive, with 66 strikeouts in 29 innings, and a WHIP of 1.20, lower than any of Aroldis Chapman‘s minor league WHIPs (a 1.35 was his lowest in 95.2 AAA innings in 2010, with 2/3 of his game appearances as a reliever).

Monday (Dec. 7), Luhnow explained the Astros’ dealing strategy from his Gaylord Opryland Resort suite: “We’ve stated it’s a priority for us this offseason to add an arm or two to the bullpen, but there are lots of avenues to get there, and we’ve got some guys in our system that may be able to help.

“Will Harris was not even on most peoples’ penciled-in roster (a year ago), and he ended up being a big part of our bullpen. Maybe James Hoyt is that guy, who knows? But we’re going to continue to work hard to improve the bullpen one way or another.”

The sound of one shoe dropping?

It’ll be interesting to listen for the sound of the other shoe dropping as the week progresses.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle