State of the Position: Who is going to man the front end of the bullpen?

Denis Poroy

The Rockies have a bunch of young strong arms to plug into the lower leverage innings.

In 2013, the Rockies' bullpen sucked.

Alright, fine, let's actually look at the numbers. The unit boasted the worst ERA in the National League at 4.23 (the Mariners and Astros were the only two teams with higher marks in the AL). But we all know that straight ERA is a terrible measure for Rockies pitchers, who must deal with Coors Field. ERA-, which adjusts for home park and pegs league average at 100, spits out a value of 99 for Rockies relievers last year. In other words, they were one percent better than league average ERA last year, which sounds much better.

Unfortunately, ERA- doesn't make a distinction between starters and relievers. Relievers as a whole perform better than starters, because they only pitch one or two innings, and don't have to pace themselves like starters. So the Rockies' mark of 99 was still fourth worst in the NL and seventh worst in MLB. Better, but I'm pretty sure no one gives out medals for fourth worst.

The other number to note is 555⅔, the number of innings Rockies relievers hurled in 2013. That's the second most in MLB, behind only the Twins. So the Rockies bullpen threw a ton of innings, and they were ineffective in preventing runs during those innings. Not a great combination.

Anyway, that was a rabbit hole I didn't mean to go down. It just illustrates that the Rockies had work to do this off season to address the bullpen, and work they did. This series is the State of the Position, and this post covers the front end of the bullpen -- the guys who pitch the lower leverage innings (the back end, including Rex Brothers, LaTroy Hawkins, Matt Belisle, and Adam Ottavino will run in a couple days). There was turnover from 2013 to 2014, as the following will demonstrate.

Long story short: the front end of the bullpen should be much improved over last year. Given the fluid nature of bullpens, I'm going to go a different route from the previous State of the Position posts and separate this into two categories: near locks and possibles. Let's start with the locks.

Near Locks

2013 IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA
FIP WAR
Boone Logan 39 11.54 3 1.62 0.292 85.6 3.23 3.82 0.3
Franklin Morales 25.1 7.46 5.33 0.71 0.31 74 4.62 4.55 0.1
Wilton Lopez 75.1 5.73 2.15 0.72 0.331 73 4.06 3.57 0.7

A couple of those guys are acquisitions from AL East teams, and both dealt with injuries in 2013. But we're betting on bounce backs in 2014.

  • Boone Logan (LHP): A free agent, formerly of the Yankees, signed for $16.5 million over three years. He's mostly been used against lefties, against whom he's been very effective (career .690 OPS against). It seems the Rockies view Logan as a middle-to-late inning option against both lefties and righties, though, since they likely wouldn't give such a contract to a LOOGY. In his career he's allowed an .854 OPS to righties, so that seems like a dubious proposition to me. He's coming off bone chip surgery in his elbow in the off season, but supposedly he'll be ready by Opening Day. He hasn't seen any action yet in Spring Training, so count that as dubious proposition No. 2. Dubious propositions aside, he's a hard throwing lefty who should provide solid value to the Rockies.
  • State of the Position

  • Franklin Morales (LHP): Acquired from the Boston Red Sox for Jonathan Herrera. We all remember Morales from his earlier Rockies stint. He's the classic case of a high-talent live arm occasionally sabotaged by an inability to find the strike zone. He posted a couple of so-so years in Boston after moving on from the Rockies, but it seems he's finally starting to get that walk rate under control. Frankie Mo might actually get a few starts at the beginning of the season, as Jhoulys Chacin's arm issues won't be resolved by Opening Day, but when Chacin comes back (fingers crossed) Morales will likely be the long man out of the 'pen. He might be maddeningly wild at times, but after a tour of the AL he might have gained some much needed maturity and pitchability.
  • Most Rockies fans probably aren't wild about the return of Wilton Lopez. Lopez blew a couple of games early in 2013, earning a negative reputation he spent the rest of the year trying to live down. He never fully got his groove back, but there may be reason for optimism regarding Lopez. First of all, his numbers weren't that bad; a 4.06 ERA, 2.25 BB/9 and 3.57 FIP won't get you mistaken for Craig Kimbrel, but they also don't warrant the vitriol to which he was often subjected. Factor in an unlucky .331 BABIP and career lows in K/9 and GB% (which could improve with a mechanical tweak) and Lopez could be a prime bounce back candidate. So while Wilton didn't look great in purple pinstripes last year, Rockies fans could be changing their tune regarding the righty soon enough.

Possibles

2013 IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Tyler Matzek (AA) 142.1 6.01 4.81 0.82 0.306 76.7 3.79 4.76 N/A
Christian Friedrich (AAA) 14.2 4.91 4.91 0.61 0.245 45.9 4.3 4.63 N/A
Tommy Kahnle (AA) 60 11.1 6.75 0.6 0.254 81.4 2.85 3.85 N/A
Chris Martin (AAA) 51 8.29 1.76 0.53 0.324 75.7 3.18 2.95 N/A
Rob Scahill (MLB) 33.1 5.4 2.43 1.35 0.315 73.9 5.13 4.97 -0.2
Chad Bettis (MLB) 44.2 6.04 4.03 1.21 0.327 62.7 5.64 4.93 0.2
  • Tyler Matzek (LHP): Matzek has had his trials and travails in his three years of professional ball. The hard throwing lefty needs to learn to find the strike zone, and he seems to finally be learning how to do so. He has been groomed as a starter for most of his career, but it isn't out of the question he sees some time in Denver in a relief role (or maybe as a starter, but I'd hate to imagine the carnage that would have to happen to the regular rotation for that to happen).
  • Christian Friedrich (LHP): Friedrich dealt with injuries in 2013, never having a chance to get in a groove. By most reports he's had a pretty good spring, and the former first rounder has a big arm and a big curve ball. It's pretty unlikely he breaks camp with the team, but if he performs well in Triple-A he might find a place on the roster if injury or ineffectiveness strikes a regular.
  • Tommy Kahnle (RHP): Kahle is a young right-hander yanked off the Yankees' farm system in the Rule 5 Draft. That means the Rockies have to find a spot for the reliever on the 25-man roster on Opening Day or else he goes back to his original team. Kahnle has a pretty good arm and has performed well in spring training, so I think there's a pretty decent chance the Rockies make room for him.
  • State of the Position

  • Chris Martin (RHP): Martin also came with Franklin Morales in the Herrera trade. As far as throw-ins go, he's actually a pretty intriguing arm. He has demonstrated pretty good strikeout and control ability in his time in the Red Sox' minor league system. At the very least he provides good depth at Triple-A in case a new reliever is needed. Note that the above table only lists his Triple-A in 2013; he spent an additional 21 innings in Double-A without allowing a run.
  • Rob Scahill (RHP): We saw some of Scahill last year, in 33 mostly forgettable innings. He is pretty much the definition of a replacement bullpen arm; he won't strike people out but he limits walks. His spring training hasn't been great and he's likely headed to Triple-A, but in the inevitable reliever carousel of a major league season his services will probably be needed for at least a few weeks in the upcoming year.
  • Chad Bettis (RHP): Bettis made eight starts and eight relief appearances for Colorado last year, after exclusively starting in the Minors. It appears, for the time being anyway, that the Rockies are now grooming him as a bullpen arm, so that his fastball plays up. He's young, has a live arm, and has always been able to strike out a bunch of guys while walking very few. Since there are more players than roster spots he's likely going to be stashed in Triple-A to start 2014 because he has options.

The Rockies have accrued a sizable group of young, high upside arms to fill out the front end of the bullpen. This is perhaps a reaction to the underwhelming production the club received from guys like Jeff Francis, Manny Corpas, Edgmer Escalona, and (yes) Rob Scahill. Stay tuned for a run down of the back end of the bullpen, which will focus on the guys whom the Rockies are counting on to preserve leads.

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