Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Colorado Rockies' middle relief corps has a shot at being maybe kind of OK in 2016. You know, only in the most relative sense when compared to what has come out of the bullpen in the middle innings the last few seasons.
It's not necessarily the relievers' faults; Yohan Flande was fine last year (he was great in relief!), but injuries to Jordan Lyles, Chad Bettis, and Kyle Kendrick forced him out of his middle relief fit and into the rotation for too much of the summer. Justin Miller was fine last year, too (he had a very strong season), but injury to Adam Ottavino and ineffectiveness from Rafael Betancourt forced Miller into high-leverage situations.
Neither Flande nor Miller were out of their depth in new roles, but that's the point: those new roles really aren't where each pitcher could excel on a healthy, deep staff. Flande is best used as a long man and Miller is probably the ideal sixth/seventh inning guy (as Carolyn Jelley has noted, a LiRPA). But when the Rockies' original rotation and late-inning relief options drop like flies, the first group to strain is the malleable middle relief crew.
This year, if—if—the Rockies can just stay healthy and effective enough at the start and end of the game, guys like Flande, Chris Rusin, and Christian Bergman can settle into middle relief roles, and Miller can join Scott Oberg, Jairo Diaz, and others for important sixth and seventh inning calls to the 'pen when the game's on the line early.
Knowing how it usually goes, the rotation will be in shambles by May 1 and the entire pitching staff affected because of it, but gee, a guy can dream, right?
Middle relief ace
Coming into 2016, Justin Miller ought to be the club's middle relief ace after a strong 2015 turned into a good offseason for the big righty. With no minor league options left, he's almost a lock to make the team barring a really bad spring, considering the Rockies won't want to expose him to waivers. Assuming the three bullpen newcomers (more on them in a second) hash out the seventh, eighth and ninth inning amongst themselves, then, that leaves Miller as the guy the Rockies ought to count on when the game is on the line early.
He misses bats (10.3 K/9 in 2015), doesn't walk too many others (3.0 BB/9), and he's been virtually un-hittable (5.7 H/9). Those numbers bode well for anybody, of course, but if Miller puts up another good season this summer as the first man out of the bullpen to put out the rotation's fires, that's one potentially game-changing situation the Rockies can check off their list of questions.
I should very briefly mention the three newcomers, if only to categorize them properly; especially with Ottavino injured, it's probably safe to assume Jake McGee, Chad Qualls, and Jason Motte will collectively knock out the late relief roles for the Rockies, at least to start the summer. (And hence, such is the reason why Miller is my pick for middle relief ace.)
Sure, there could be days where Qualls pitches the sixth, McGee tosses the seventh, and Miller closes, or something (isn't depth a wonderful thing?). But generally speaking, the hierarchy probably should account for a slight difference in role between Miller and these three. Because of that, we'll have far more on Qualls, McGee, and Motte with our state of the position on late inning relievers tomorrow.
Long relief ace
It depends on how the rotation shakes out, but let's be bullish (because why not? It's February!). If the starter's jobs are handed down to some combination of Jorge De La Rosa, Chad Bettis, Jon Gray, Jordan Lyles, and Tyler Chatwood, like we're all hoping, that probably leaves Chris Rusin as the Rockies' long relief choice. He can obviously go multiple innings, he's shown the ability to succeed at Coors Field, and he can easily step into the rotation on a temporary basis if needed.
Beyond him, Christian Bergman and David Hale are both long relief options currently on the 40-man roster, and either one (or both) would likely find themselves in the 'pen if injuries or other issues force Rusin into the rotation. Yohan Flande is with the organization on another minor league deal and may again earn a path to the big leagues through good work on the farm.
Long relief sees the ultimate soft bigotry of low expectations in so many ways, but if Rusin, Bergman, Hale, and Flande are just asked to fill that role and not a more substantial one, some combination of these four ought to perform pretty admirably eating innings and bridging the game from starters to high-leverage moments.
Another year, another season of experience gained for pitchers like Scott Oberg, Jairo Diaz, and Miguel Castro, all of whom are young, hard-throwing situational front-end hurlers who are trying to prove themselves to the Rockies for a more important role in the future.
Both Oberg and Diaz ought to be fighting for one (or two?) of the Rockies' seven (or eight?) bullpen spots, and while each has the power stuff and profile to perhaps one day toss high leverage innings, neither one is quite there yet. Castro is an interesting one; as young as he is, there's a case to be made for sending him to the minors to see if he can hone his incredible stuff as a starter (or even a set-up man or closer, for that matter). If he makes the big league club out of spring training, though, it'll likely be a role well in between those two extremes.
And then there's Boone Logan. Logan's two years in Colorado haven't been, um, great... but he did improve in 2015, he's making a lot of money, he's good against lefties, and assuming health will be on the Opening Day roster. Now that McGee's around as the club's late inning relief ace from the left side, Logan ought to be the sixth/seventh inning lefty out of the 'pen.
MLB quality depth
There are a few options floating around out there if the worst happens and the call needs to go on down the line in Albuquerque; Rockies fans are most familiar with Simon Castro and Gonzalez Germen, both of whom spent some time in Denver last summer and looked pretty decent relative to their role at various points. Jason Gurka joins them as another familiar face in the minors who could get a call.
Newcomers to the organization figure in the MLB-quality depth race, too; Brian Schlitter (formerly of the Cubs and Phillies) and Brock Huntzinger (formerly of the Red Sox, Athletics, and Orioles) also have a legitimate shot to impact the big league ball club down the depth chart, since it's a long year and you can never have too much pitching.
On the farm
Most of the notable minor league arms hoping to break into the bigs probably profile in higher-leverage situations than middle relief, but like Oberg and Diaz last summer (and probably again this year), it's not too much of a stretch to think they'll start in the sixth inning of five-run games. That means guys like Nelson Gonzalez, Sam Moll (lefty!), Carlos Estevez, Matt Carasiti, Austin House, and Tyler Ybarra (lefty!) could see their first shot in Denver this year a pretty low-leverage situation, depending on what happens on the big league staff.
Even starters on the farm like Shane Carle and Harrison Musgrave could see their first big league work in the bullpen as long relievers, I suppose, but the club would have to burn through quite a few options ahead of them on the depth chart to get there. Historically in the Rockies' bullpen, though, no wacky roster situation or unforeseen test of pitching depth is too much.
Ahh, baseball at altitude.