Astros have plenty of options to fill closer's role

Qualls, Gregerson and Neshek all present veteran possibilities for ninth inning

Astros have plenty of options to fill closer's role

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The good news for the Astros is they have several capable candidates to close out games this year. That's certainly reassurance for manager A.J. Hinch, who inherits a team that's blown 73 games in the past three seasons -- the most in the Major Leagues in that span.

It's no secret the Astros made relief pitching their top priority in the spring, signing veterans Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson to join Chad Qualls and Josh Fields at the back of the bullpen. They later added Joe Thatcher on a Minor League deal.

While Fields has closed some games the last two years and Qualls did a nice job closing last year, the Astros plan to take the spring to identify their closer for 2015. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Qualls, Gregerson, Neshek and Fields are the mix, along with lefty Tony Sipp. Look for Qualls, Gregerson or Neshek to land the job.

"It'll take a while," Hinch said. "I've told these guys I'm going to communicate with them as decisions are starting to be formed. When you have resumed guys like Qualls and Gregerson and Neshek -- and I know Sipp closed out some games last year and Fields has done it in the past -- there's less need to sort of try out."

Hinch didn't want to use the word "competing" because the three front-runners are all capable, though only Qualls has extensive experience as a closer. Qualls converted 19 of 25 save chances last year and has 70 saves on his resume, including 24 with Arizona in '09. Last year, the veteran was terrific when he wasn't facing the A's (0-4, 27.00 ERA, four blown saves).

Outlook: Gregerson, RP, HOU

Gregerson, 30, has saved 19 games in his Major League career, which began with San Diego (2009-13) and took him to Oakland last year. In San Diego, he worked ahead of closers Heath Bell and Huston Street, and Sean Dolittle closed last year for the A's.

Neshek, 34, has only six career saves and is probably a longer shot to close than Qualls and Gregerson.

Outlook: Neshek, RP, HOU

"I do have an idea of how it's going to play out, but I'm not rushing to judgment or I'm not against changing my mind half a dozen to 10 times between now and April," Hinch said. "It's very, very premature."

What makes identifying a closer difficult in Spring Training is the lack of closing situations. Pitchers won't work the pressure of regular-season games or before large crowds in the Grapefruit League. The pitchers who throw in the ninth inning early in camp are usually those who won't make the club.

In other words, it's hard to replicate a closing situation in the spring.

"You're not sitting there with a packed house and a game on the line and facing the A lineup of the other team," Luhnow said. "And so we're going to let them do their work and evaluate them as best we can, but these guys have track records also that we're going to look at, and at the end of the day, A.J. will determine with his staff what he thinks is the best configuration to start Opening Day and then we'll try it.

"If it works, that will be what we stick with. It's nice to have various options. The game is on the line at various points from the sixth inning until the ninth inning, so to have three or four guys who have experience closing out games, or we know are capable of doing it, will definitely help us win games."

Hinch isn't worried in late February who's going to be his closer, and he might not be worried too much about it in a month, either. He's at peace knowing he has options.

"I think all of them have a calm heartbeat, I think all of them have stuff to get both sides of the hitters out," he said. "I'm not sure there's a bad choice in there, but I'll certainly evaluate it over the next six weeks."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.