With their first significant Major League roster addition of the offseason (and first move of the Winter Meetings), the Colorado Rockies acquired two right-handed relief pitchers on Tuesday morning, Jason Motte and Chad Qualls. The acquisitions are somewhat of a surprise, adding big league talent to a club that probably should head in the other direction and shed veterans now to sacrifice for the future.
Nevertheless, one of the Rockies' worst units in 2015 was their bullpen. With the moves Tuesday morning, general manager Jeff Bridich seems intent on acquiring three things to replenish the relief corps (order of importance to be determined): power pitchers, strike-throwers, and buy-low veterans that should be trade chips down the road.
Since the Rockies likely won't do much in 2016, anyways, Motte's signing (two years, $10 million) allows Colorado a veteran bullpen presence to lean on while Adam Ottavino returns from injury, it allows Motte the chance at a nice payday and a late-inning role, and it allows both team and player mutually beneficial options at the next two trade deadlines.
Scouting Jason Motte
At 33 years old, Motte is past the peak of his career, but his track record and relatively consistent work (save a lost year returning from elbow surgery) give the Rockies reasonable expectations for him to be a dependable bullpen option. Having won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and going back to the National League Championship Series as their 42-save closer the next season, Motte has high-leverage inning experience equal to or stronger than recent veteran relievers in Denver, including Rafael Betancourt, John Axford, and LaTroy Hawkins.
After being drafted in the 19th round in 2003 by the Cardinals, Motte spent his entire career with St. Louis until 2015, when he pitched in 57 games with the Chicago Cubs.
An important demarcation in Motte's career is 2013; fresh off arguably the best season of his career, the righty sat out after elbow reconstruction surgery, and then felt the effects of his year off with a subpar and abbreviated 2014 season. His velocity started to return in 2015, though (Motte averaged 95.0 mph last year in Chicago), and with it, his K:BB ratio improved and he became far less hittable out of the bullpen.
With his repertoire (slider, curve, changeup, and several types of fastballs), his raw stuff (Motte has averaged 96.1 mph on his fastball across his career), and his career 8.7 K/9 against just 2.6 BB/9, it's not hard to see why the Rockies like him. Now several years removed from elbow surgery and stronger after a decent year in Chicago, Motte ought to have some miles left in his arm before the true down slope of what will end up being a solid career in relief.
Though it likely won't matter with the Rockies' 2016 fortunes, Motte has 19 playoff appearances to his name, including five games pitched in the 2011 World Series. He's nails in the postseason, allowing just five earned runs in 21⅔ innings of work (2.08 ERA) with eight saves, and this game:
For those seeking video, here's more of Motte (note this highlight video is from 2012, the year before Motte's arm injury):
Here's some extended video of Motte's first appearance back in St. Louis in 2014 after his surgery:
Finally, here's a (very brief, but informative) look at Motte while pitching for the Cubs last summer, showing relatively unchanged mechanics and approach to the plate despite his arm injury:
As you can see in those four videos, Motte is the mechanical opposite of the last free agent acquisition we profiled, former Cubs' hurler Brian Schlitter; instead of falling off hard to the glove side like Schlitter (and the Rockies' Adam Ottavino), Motte's hips never fully come through after release and he typically finishes squared up to the hitter, which is somewhat unique for the mechanics of a power pitcher in this day and age.
Motte is equally notable for two other parts of his delivery, too: the hitch where he separates his hands once at the beginning of his motion, and how his plant leg flies open towards the glove side of the plate, opening his hips and shoulders easier than many pitchers trying to hide the ball. (This, too, impacts Motte's follow-through and finish with his back side.)
As is true with evaluating any player, there are a few ways to look at Motte. A pessimist may argue he's several years into the wrong side of 30, and now he comes to a hitter's environment after a serious injury and two years significantly worse than his career averages before the injury. An optimist will see a pitcher who found his velocity and improved his command in 2015 after struggling through a post-injury season, and at 33 years old, he has at least a few years of dependable relief remaining in his career.
While he may not strike out batters in 2016 at some of the rates Motte saw in his prime, I'd be surprised if the reliever weren't fairly dependable coming out of the bullpen this summer. If Motte can miss bats at a rate more in line with his career averages, his power stuff ought to play well enough at Coors Field, too, as he's never been particularly susceptible to the home run in large sample sizes (though, to be fair, he is generally a fly ball pitcher).
Like Schlitter, Motte has a plus-plus hair/beard combination:
He's also a solid tweeter (@JMotte30), but most importantly off the field, his Jason Motte Foundation works to strike out cancer.
Motte's best comparison on the Rockies
With his history and stuff, there may not be a good comparison currently on the Rockies. Obviously, the first I thought of was former Rockies closer John Axford, if only for both pitchers' significant closing experience, hard fastballs, and multiple offspeed pitches. Generally, Motte's command has been significantly better than Axford, though, and Motte has also proven himself significantly more difficult to hit. In some other ways, Motte's best comp on the Rockies may be another brand new acquisition, strike-thrower Chad Qualls. (We'll profile Qualls in depth tomorrow morning.)
What to expect in 2016
Upcoming offseason acquisitions notwithstanding, Motte may well be the Rockies' de facto closer before Adam Ottavino returns from injury a few months into the season. With 60 career saves (and eight more in the playoffs), the righty has the experience and stuff to take on the role and give the Rockies as dependable a veteran late-inning option as they can realistically hope for in a down year.
The more interesting arc with Motte, though, is his two-year deal. Considering the money pitchers have been getting this winter (and what Boone Logan is making!), $5 million per year isn't a bad bill for a dependable late-inning reliever, and Motte could well become trade bait this July with a strong first half. With both Motte and Qualls, though, it seems Bridich is rolling the dice on low-cost, decent-reward veterans who can anchor the bullpen until they are flipped for young assets, and that's not a bad way to construct a 'pen during a rebuild.