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The Rockies are going in on the mega-bullpen model

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The Rockies are investing a great deal to maintain the best bullpen in the National League

The emergence of “bullpenning” and the “relief ace” has led to an explosion in high-dollar contracts for the upper tier of relievers over the past few seasons. Understandably, the desire to use more bullpen arms for more innings in any given game has appeared most on playoff teams, where the stakes in each game are high and starters are on a short leash.

In 2015, for instance, the Royals rode the arms of Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera to a World Series title. In 2016, the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman to complement Hector Rondon in the bullpen and secured a title. In 2017, the Yankees “bullpenned” nearly the entire Wild Card game to beat the Twins. For 2018-2020, the Colorado Rockies have fully committed to a high-dollar, high-leverage bullpen that they hope will push them over the top in a talented NL West division.

With the signing of Wade Davis to a three-year $52 million contract (with 2021 vesting option), the Rockies now have the highest-paid, and arguably the best, bullpen in the National League. It was already one of the better bullpens in baseball, ranking 7th in bullpen RA9-WAR and 3rd in Win Probability Added. While the bullpen ERA wasn’t the best due to some big collapses in individual games, they got the job done when it counted most during the regular season.

The window for the Rockies now seems to be (at least) through 2019, after which Nolan Arenado will enter free agency (unless the Rockies extend him). The core of the bullpen, however, is locked in through 2020. What’s notable is that the Rockies spent big on three relievers who are all past their age-30 season during a slow offseason for most teams. It is unlikely that Davis, Shaw, and McGee will increase in value during that time. This could make the window smaller than it appears at first sight if those players decline (or can’t stay healthy). This is the risk in spending early and often in a slow free agent market. While other teams may be sitting tight and waiting for prices to drop (or waiting for next year’s free agent class to hit market), the Rockies are acquiring assets and committing to 2018.

From one pitching staff strategy perspective, this makes sense. The Rockies are going to spend little more than league minimum in 2018 on a starting rotation that was roughly league average in most major pitching metrics last year and could see a jump in production. Taking advantage of that value is key. ZiPS has zWAR projections over 2.0 for German Marquez, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, Tyler Anderson, and Jeff Hoffman. While we don’t know exactly what the starting rotation will look like, we can predict that their WAR/$ spent should be high.

Let’s take a look at the Rockies’ bullpen financial commitments as well as the possible value for the next three years. We will exclude the league-minimum contracts of fringe relievers Senzatela and Hoffman because their status in the starting rotation is unknown.

Here are the projected bullpen contracts and ages for 2018-2020, along with 2017 stats:

Rockies Bullpen Contracts, 2018

Player Age Salary bWAR (2017) ERA+ (2017) WPA (2017)
Player Age Salary bWAR (2017) ERA+ (2017) WPA (2017)
Wade Davis 32 $16 million 1.9 190 3.54
Bryan Shaw 30 $7.5 million 0.6 130 0.65
Jake McGee 31 $7 million 1.6 139 1.33
Chris Rusin 31 $1.4 million 2.4 189 2.64
Adam Ottavino 32 $7 million 0.6 99 0.23
Mike Dunn 33 $7 million 0.7 112 1.76
Carlos Estevez 25 pre-ARB 0 91 0.89
Scott Oberg 28 pre-ARB 0.2 102 -0.07

Rockies Bullpen Contracts, 2019

Player Age Salary
Player Age Salary
Wade Davis 33 $18 million
Bryan Shaw 31 $8.5 million
Jake McGee 32 $8.5 million
Chris Rusin 32 ARB 2
Adam Ottavino 33 Free Agent
Mike Dunn 34 $7 million
Carlos Estevez 26 pre-ARB
Scott Oberg 29 ARB 1

Rockies Bullpen Contracts, 2020

Player Age Salary
Player Age Salary
Wade Davis 34 $17 million
Bryan Shaw 32 $9 million
Jake McGee 33 $9.5 million
Chris Rusin 33 ARB 3
Mike Dunn 35 $6 million team option
Carlos Estevez 27 ARB 1
Scott Oberg 30 ARB 2

A few things pop out here:

  1. This is a really good bullpen top to bottom, especially for 2018. Based on bWAR from 2017, it is not out of the question the Rockies have a 7-8 bWAR out of the top six arms in the bullpen. By comparison, the Yankees top six relievers turned in a 9.2 bWAR in 2017. With just small improvements from young players like Oberg and Estevez, as well as minimal declines from the veterans, this could be a scary pen.
  2. Age is a concern beyond 2018. Of course when you are signing free agents, players tend to be further along, but the Rockies are going to be relying heavily on six arms all over the age of 30. While McGee improved in 2017 over 2016, Shaw, Davis, and Dunn saw a dip in multiple metrics. Chris Rusin, who has blossomed in his bullpen role, should be relatively consistent through his arbitration years. If multiple relievers see a big drop-off in performance, the Rockies could be in trouble and be forced to bank on Senzatela or Hoffman improving and eating innings.
  3. With over $40 million already committed to the bullpen for three years, the Rockies need to figure out how to be competitive in 2020 with Blackmon and Arenado off the books by that time. Of course, the Rockies could sign either or both of those players, and a lot changes in two years, but it is hard to see the Rockies being competitive without more bats going forward. 2018 will be an important indicator, but as those bullpen arms age, they will become harder to offload via trade if things go poorly.

★ ★ ★

This offseason has been slow for most ball clubs, but the Rockies are jumping at the chance to solidify a bullpen for multiple years and bring a new standard of “pitching first” to Coors Field. This next season is shaping up to be a fun one for Rockies fans.