In a moment when teams rely on their bullpens more and more, especially in the postseason, we know that every team needs relievers. We also know that the men who pitch in these roles are entirely unpredictable and cause teams a lot of stress as they try to figure out who will be good from one game to the next, never mind from one season to the next.
The Colorado Rockies need relievers. Every team needs relievers, but it stands to be an especially glaring hole for this team after they rode their bullpen hard for stretches on their way to a playoff berth. Setup men Jake McGee and Pat Neshek join Greg Holland as free agents. That leaves a lot of high leverage work that the Rockies need to account for as they build their bullpen.
Let’s take a look at the reliever market and where the Rockies should look for help this offseason.
The expensive tier
Free agents in this tier: Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Addison Reed
Hopefully we all got this out of our systems with Mark Melancon last winter. There is tremendous risk with committing big money over multi-year deals for relief pitchers, and the Rockies do not have the kind of payroll to sit on that dead money if the deals don't work out.
Maybe Holland will feel some pull back to Colorado because they gave him the chance to turn it around, but ultimately the Rockies should balk at an asking price that will likely be similar to what the Giants paid Melancon—four years for $62 million. We’ll always have 2017, Greg.
Reed is actually probably somewhere between this and the middle tier, and I imagine there will be a lot of rumors around the Rockies having interest in him. There is definitely a potential fit there, but given his track record saving games as recently as this past season, I’m betting some team panics and overpays him to be their closer. I sincerely hope that team is not the Rockies.
The middle tier
Free agents in this tier: Jake McGee, Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Mike Minor, Juan Nicasio, Bryan Shaw
As the Rockies consider their options for players who could potentially have a big impact and even save games for them, this tier might present the risk-reward sweet spot. Signing one of these guys will likely require a deal similar to those received by Boone Logan and Mike Dunn previously—something in the three-year, $25-30 million range. Enough money that you notice and get mad if they struggle, but really not enough for it to be a total disaster until the guy has been bad for the whole deal.
Name recognition will likely play a part here as well, specifically with Morrow, as he was consistently in the headlines during the World Series. Nicasio, on the other hand, had a quieter but nevertheless solid season. Is there a big difference between Morrow and Nicasio? Maybe there is. Probably there is, but again, relievers are so unpredictable and weird that they might be closer than you think.
As for lefties, the Rockies would probably welcome Jake McGee back with open arms, but the lefty might have his eyes on a non-Coors home. Minor is another left-handed option, but the Rockies might not be in a position to get him in what figures to be a very competitive market and with Dunn already in the fold for two more years.
The lower tier
Free agents in this tier: Anthony Swarzak, Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek, Tommy Hunter, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz
This is where the Rockies can and should try to identify value. Think about this question: if you were compiling a similar list of tiers last winter, where would Greg Holland have landed? Even with a track record of saving games, he was coming off a full season away from baseball and had not regained his velocity. He probably would have been in this tier as a guy who might cost a bit more as a flier, but who might also just not have it anymore.
Rather than overpaying Holland or somebody like him, the Rockies should keep trying to find the next guys who can provide relatively cheap value. They might not find another franchise record in saves, but they could still find a pitcher for high-leverage spots or maybe even another closer. Is it so crazy to think that Steve Cishek might be the Rockies closer, and that he might do just fine in that role?
While there is less risk with these signings, there is still some risk and the Rockies should therefore be on the hunt for certain attributes with these pitchers. Kintzler pitches to contact, so that’s not a good idea for the Rockies. Cishek or Hunter have shown they can miss bats, and therefore could be worth a deal at the right price.
The bargain bin
Free agents in this tier: everybody else
At the right price, there’s really no such thing as a bad deal in this tier. The Rockies pretty much showed us what the worst-case scenario looks like recently in this tier with guys like Jason Motte and Chad Qualls, and ultimately neither was worth more than a shoulder shrug in terms of stress when it didn’t work out.
There are too many players to list in this tier, but consider one example. Just a year ago, we were observing that Boone Logan had salvaged the last year of his deal with the Rockies in 2016. Surprisingly, he was only able to land a one-year deal in Cleveland as a free agent.
That one year was wrecked by injury, which very well might mean he is forced to sign a smaller “show me” type contract this winter after Cleveland declined his option. Might the Rockies see an opportunity there to add a lefty with a track record on the cheap? They could also look to pitchers who have worked in the back of the bullpen before such as Jeanmar Gomez or familiar foes like Joaquin Benoit and Luke Gregerson.
What should the Rockies do?
The sometimes-lengthy lists above still only scratch the surface of the many relievers available this winter. Between that and the risks with big deals for relievers, the Rockies should avoid the high-price guys. They should pick their spot for a middle tier reliever and spend to get him: Morrow would be a great fit, and MLB Trade Rumors actually predicts he will land with the Rockies for three years and $24 million. I still think he might go for more than that, and if it gets too spendy the Rockies could look to another option. I find myself interested in a reunion with Nicasio myself.
If the Rockies don’t see the right fit to spend, they should stick to cheaper options. In that case, they can look past these middle tier options for value elsewhere. They can always bolster their bullpen mid-season via trade as they did in 2017 with Neshek.
From there, they should add multiple options in the lower and bargain bin tiers. Whatever the names, it would likely be pitchers with high velocity who can miss bats. Maybe somebody like the reinvented Tommy Hunter would be a fit for the Rockies. Tony Watson could be a potential lefty option to replace McGee. Finally, pick a name or two from the bargain bin and hope for the best.
The Rockies have internal options to help fill the high-leverage roles vacated in their bullpen, mostly younger pitchers like Carlos Estévez and Antonio Senzatela. The recipe to pair free agents with those guys to build another good bullpen is the same: spend some money, identify opportunities to get value, and get some good luck. And seriously, don’t overspend or offer a long-term deal to a closer.
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Here’s a full list of reliever free agents, according to Cot’s Contracts. Who do you think the Rockies should avoid? Who should they go after?
*Player has either a team or player option