Ryan Pressley is one of the best closers in postseason history. But the Houston Astros may want him to share ninth-inning duties or replace him entirely in 2024.
Why: They're trying to sign free agent Josh Hader, perhaps the best in the game.
The Astros are paying Hader, according to sources familiar with their discussions. Hader, 29, is seeking a contract higher than Edwin Diaz's five-year, $102 million deal with the New York Mets, the largest deal of its kind.
The addition of Hader would greatly bolster the Astros' lineup as they deal with the loss of right-handed setup man Kendall Graveman, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last week.
Combined with the departures of Hector Neres, Ryan Stanek and Phil Maton in free agency, Houston has now lost 207 1/3 innings of bullpen for 2023 — which almost included Hader in the final two months.
After last season's trade deadline, owner Jim Crane admitted the team sought a “starter and reliever” from the San Diego Padres, but the duo “never got on the board.” Although he did not mention them by name, Crane presumably meant Hader and Blake Snell, neither of whom changed the team.
Crane and general manager Dana Brown then turned to Justin Verlander in a deal that Crane helped complete. Crane remains involved in the team's baseball operations decisions.
Signing Hader would represent a stark departure from standard operating procedures during Crane's ownership. He has never signed a free agent for more than $58.5 million, and has given only three deals worth more than $100 million — extensions to franchise mainstays Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and another to Yordan Alvarez.
Even if Hader doesn't match Diaz's record contract, it stands to reason that he would need the largest free-agent deal since Crean bought the club in 2011 — a deal that would also launch the Astros above the competitive tax cap of $237 million. Crane has exceeded the luxury tax only once during his ownership.
Signing the best player available in the sport is generally promising, but bringing in Hader would raise questions about how first-year manager Joe Espada will handle the closer role.
If the Astros sign Hader to a standard contract or something close, it won't be because they want him to pitch in the ninth inning. Hader – who has not scored more than three in a regular-season game since 2020 – may disapprove of such usage. Other teams seeking to pursue Hader could promise a closer, more defined role as well.
In the modern baseball era, beginning in 1901, Hader became the career leader with a .156 batting average and 15 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (minimum 300 innings pitched). His average fastball velocity dropped from 97.4 in 2022 to 96.1 in 2023 while his walk rate increased from 9.6 percent to a career high of 13 percent. But his .157 expected batting average was the lowest in the major leagues (minimum 1,000 pitches).
Pressley, 35, is 14-for-14 in postseason save opportunities with a 2.22 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. He has a streak of 20 playoff appearances without allowing a run. During the 2023 regular season, Pressley went 31-for-37 in save opportunities with a 3.58 ERA.
Pressley has been the Astros' full-time closer the past four seasons and shut out Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last spring. He is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, which has a $14 million mutual option for 2025. That option will exercise if Pressley plays in 50 games in 2024 — a benchmark that has been cleared in each of the past five 162-game seasons.
Those inside the Astros clubhouse view Presley as a consummate professional who puts the team's success before his own, but bringing in Hader would still create some understandable awkwardness.
Since becoming the team's full-time closer in 2021, Pressley has racked up 90 saves, a 141 ERA+, a 0.985 WHIP, and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He has allowed one earned run in 24 postseason games since 2021, a stretch that includes 10 saves and one win. Pressley has one of the five best shutouts in the sport — already one of the best postseason closeouts in baseball history — but now faces the possibility of sharing the title.
Signing Hader could also represent an opportunity for the Astros to right a past wrong. The Astros acquired Hader as a minor leaguer as part of a trade for pitcher Bud Norris at the 2013 deadline.
Two years later, in what became one of the worst trades in franchise history, Houston sent Hader to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a package for outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fears. Gomez was designated for assignment one year later while Fiers blew the whistle on Houston's electronic sign-stealing scandal at Minute Maid Park during the 2017-18 seasons.
(Photo by Josh Hader: Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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