Wednesday Rockpile: Rockies bullpen will be key to 2014 contention

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado's addition of LaTroy Hawkins will help bolster the bullpen - but is that enough for a team that it needs its bullpen as much as the Rockies do?

Traditionally, there's no area on a major league team that sees more turnover year-over-year than the bullpen - and for good reason. After all, the modern major league bullpen is full of failed starters who have found new life as relief specialists.

Pitchers just like LaTroy Hawkins, who will sign a one year, $2.5 million contract with a $2.25 million option ($250k buyout) for 2015 with the Rockies pending a passed physical tomorrow. Bryan did a fine job yesterday in describing why this deal is a good move for the Rockies, so I won't belabor this point too much. Hawkins brings another veteran presence to the pen, high 90's heat, and he was on the Rocktober team in 2007. Good enough for me. But back to bullpen construction.

Besides the fact that many bullpen slots are filled by journeymen failed starters/now relievers like Hawkins and Matt Belisle on short-term contracts, there's another reason why bullpen composition is so volatile from year-to-year. Put simply, the small sample size inherent to being a reliever means that performance by any individual bullpen pitcher can fluctuate significantly year-over-year. I think that's what happened in 2013 with Wilton Lopez, an ace reliever with the Astros from 2010-2012 who was Captain Anti-Clutch last year.

My point is that even when you think you've got a great group of relievers, the level of production you can expect from said relievers in a given year is much more volatile than any other positional group. That's a bit of a problem for the Rockies, who had their relievers throw the second most innings of any team in the majors last year - following a season in which they threw by far the most innings.

I don't believe that the Rockies will lean quite that heavily on their bullpen this year, especially if they add another dependable starter to the mix, but there's a reason why Bill Geivett doesn't think the Rockies are done adding to their bullpen. On a team and in a ballpark where the bullpen is going to be throwing a lot of high-leverage innings, the Rockies want to reduce the volatility they can reasonably expect from their relievers. That's why getting a proven commodity like Hawkins in the mix makes a lot of sense...and why I wouldn't be surprised to see Colorado add another veteran reliever to the pen.

If you think about the bullpen as a unit (instead of a collection of relievers) and compare that unit to the production of the starting pitchers (again, as a unit) on any MLB team, you'll see that they throw on average about 500 innings a year (499 in 2013) compared to 950 innings for the starters (956 in 2013). That's a 1.9:1 ratio of starter innings to relief innings. The Rockies last year had a 1.6:1 SP to RP ratio (880 starter innings, 550 reliever innings) - meaning that relievers as a unit were relatively much more important (16% more, to be more precise) to the Rockies than they were to the average MLB team in 2013. I don't see that changing too much going forward either.

Given the ballpark challenges the Rockies face, the uncertain back of the rotation, and the elevated injury rate the Rockies have seen in the past, building a deep and talented bullpen whose variation in performance won't swing too closely to replacement-level is a key area for the Rockies to improve this off-season if they want to contend in 2014. It's also an area they can improve with lower-cost, short-term options, which is a plus if there is a lack of payroll flexibility. I'm glad that the front office is making this a priority and hope that the team gets another solid reliever to join Hawkins.

Los Links!

I don't agree with Steven Goldman's take at SBNation.com on the Hawkins signing...but Andrew Martin and RIRF do a great job of explaining why in the comments section.

The Rockies are being linked to free agent OF/1B Corey Hart, who sat out 2012 with an injury. The market is waiting until he is cleared medically, which won't be until December 3rd. Hart projects as a league average bat in 2014, so he's a worthwhile short-term risk for a player looking to re-establish his market value. The Rockies could certainly do worse than him, though he's a terrible defender like Michael Cuddyer.

Want to learn more about Fielding Independent Pitching? Well you're in luck.

Here is the worst baseball video ever. Yeesh.

OFF-TOPIC.

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