HOUSTON -- The Astros appeared to have found their closer of the future when Mark Melancon took over for injured veteran Brandon Lyon last May and wound up saving 20 games and finished the season with a run of 11 consecutive scoreless appearances.
That didn't stop the rebuilding Astros from trying to better themselves for the future by sending Melancon to the Red Sox earlier this week in exchange for shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitching prospect Kyle Weiland. Houston swapped one promising young player and got two in return, which kept with its blueprint of stockpiling as much young talent as possible.
The Astros were willing to move Melancon because they believe they have some young arms that are capable of growing into a closer role and will get a chance to show what they can do in pressure situations while the club is rebuilding. It also didn't hurt that Lyon is set to return for the final year of his contract in 2012 and is an experienced closer.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow says his team is well-equipped to cover the eighth and ninth innings without Melancon.
"We need to have a strong bullpen," Luhnow said. "Lyon has experience and a lot of the closer role really is about having experience in those pressure situations. No matter what, whether it's the ninth, eighth or seventh inning, he will play an important role because of his veteran presence."
Lyon, who's owed $5.5 million in 2012, appeared in only 15 games last season and blew four of eight save chances before having surgery in June to repair a detachment of his right biceps tendon as well as a repair of his shoulder labrum. The Astros' late-inning problems only continued.
The Astros wound up blowing 25 saves last season, which tied for the third-most in the Major Leagues. They converted only 25 of 50 save chances, which was the worst percentage in the Majors. Melancon blew five saves in 25 chances, and setup man Wilton Lopez blew six saves.
Neither Luhnow nor manager Brad Mills were ready to say who will be running out of the bullpen in the ninth inning for the Astros next year.
"We do feel like we have a stable of relievers that all have the capability of playing important back-end roles, but none of them have the experience," Luhnow said. "That's something we're going to have to sort through at Spring Training. Mills and [pitching coach Doug] Brocail will give everybody a shot and see how people react, and hopefully by Opening Day we'll have a good feel about how that's going to line up."
The durable Lopez has the ability to close, but probably not on a full-time basis. The Astros have better options in the future with David Carpenter, a former catcher in the Cardinals system who can hit 95 mph. He made his debut last season and had a 2.93 ERA in 34 games with 29 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings.
Right-hander Juan Abreu, acquired from the Braves in last summer's Michael Bourn trade, has one of the best fastballs in the system and has been clocked throwing as hard at 99 mph. He struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 innings in his Major League debut last season.
The Astros selected hard-throwing right-hander Rhiner Cruz in the Rule 5 Draft earlier this month. He hit 98 mph last spring, but has struggled to control his pitches. He walked 39 batters and struck out 51 in 58 2/3 innings last year at Double-A Binghamton of the Mets organization.
"He definitely has the stuff -- the velocity and breaking pitch -- to be an end-of-the-game pitcher," Luhnow said. "The question with him and will continue to be is his control. You can't be walking guys in the ninth inning. He's shown some promise in that area, and there are players when they get to a certain age and start to mature, the command and control improves, and we're hoping he's one of those."
But Luhnow said the closer situation is often fluid, especially for a young team like the Astros. The closer on Opening Day isn't necessarily going to be in the same role when Memorial Day rolls around.
"The goal for us during Spring Training is to make sure that of the 25 men on the roster, we have enough relievers in there, good relievers, regardless of roles, that we can get the game from the starter to the end of the game and maintain quality innings at the end," Luhnow said. "That's where it's most important."