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Experience and youth drive Rockies bullpen depth

The squad should be a strength again in 2018

In 2017, the Rockies made the wild card game largely on the backs of their pitching staff. While the offense was struggling to score runs, the Rockies rode their young rotation and impressive bullpen to major success. Greg Holland led the National League in saves and helped the team in the early weeks of the season. As the team’s hot start faded and Holland came back to earth, Bud Black was able to get quality innings out of Jake McGee, Mike Dunn, Chris Rusin and others. The midseason addition of Pat Neshek helped the Rockies secure games down the stretch.

After the season, the Rockies had some big holes to fill, and none of those holes would be cheap. Greg Holland turned down his option and a qualifying offer. Pat Neshek, a half-year rental, was out the door. And Jake McGee was also becoming a free agent. To address the Holland situation, the Rockies gave a massive deal to Wade Davis, whom most consider a slight upgrade. Neshek’s spot was filled by Bryan Shaw, who will be an upgrade by virtue of being around for more than half a season. And Jake McGee was replaced by, uh, Jake McGee, who should be about the same as Jake McGee was last year. As a result of these three deals, the Rockies will have a historically expensive bullpen. If all these replacements play the way they’re expected to, the Rockies may be riding their bullpen back into a playoff spot.

The Closer

The crown jewel of the Rockies offseason, Wade Davis signed an impressive 3-year, $52 million deal with a fourth-year vesting option following a season on Chicago’s north side. Davis is coming off of three consecutive All-Star seasons, two with Kansas City and one with Chicago, and he played in two World Series with KC, including their 2015 championship season. Davis’s 32 saves were 5th in the NL last season, and he only earned one blown save in the process. The peripheral numbers have been mixed for Davis; he posted a 12.12 K/9 and 0.92 HR/9 last year, but his 4.30 BB/9 in 2017 was a career high.

Another concern for Davis moving to Coors Field full time is his career FB% of 38.9%, which wasn’t as much of a problem when he was pitching in Tropicana, Kauffman and Wrigley. Fans should expect Davis to be the closer to start the season. Unless things go very wrong, it’s hard to see anyone displacing him.

The Late-Inning Relievers

The Rockies will likely look to four options in the late-innings. The first used to be the team’s closer. After returning from Tommy John in 2016, Adam Ottavino was thrust into the closer’s role and handled it capably. Ottavino hoped to build off of that success in 2017, but he ultimately turned in a subpar campaign. He pitched respectably in the start of the season, putting up a 3.08 ERA through his first 29 appearances. On June 25th, however, Bud Black hung Ottavino out to dry in an abysmal 6-run, 48-pitch appearance, after which Ottavino turned in a 5.19 ERA (altogether, he finished the season with a 5.06 ERA). Ottavino’s wildness was a factor all season, and he finished the year with a career-worst 6.58 BB/9 (2nd worst in MLB among qualifying relievers). If Ottavino can minimize the walks, Rockies fans would be a lot more comfortable seeing him back in his usual 8th inning role.

After two years in the Rockies bullpen, Jake McGee had the option to test the free agent market this offseason, and he ended up taking a 3-year, $27 million deal to come back to Denver. The former Tampa Bay closer took that same role when he joined the Rockies in 2016 but lost the job after landing on the DL in June. McGee’s fastball velocity dipped after coming off the DL, but it rebounded in 2017, and he made improvements in ERA, K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. With the 2017 signing of Greg Holland, McGee moved into a setup role and made most of his appearances in the 8th inning; it stands to reason that the Davis signing this offseason means McGee will be back there in 2018. He and the next pitcher on the list, Bryan Shaw, may mix and match against players in the 7th and 8th, though McGee has proven he’s capable of being much more than just a lefty specialist.

Shaw was one of the first dominoes to fall this offseason, signing a 3-year, $25 million deal with a $9 million team option for 2021. From 2013 to 2017, Shaw led all pitchers in games played, appearing in 70 to 80 games each season for Cleveland. Despite pitching in nearly half of Cleveland’s games for five years, each of Shaw’s appearances has been fairly short (no more than 2.1 innings), limiting the wear on his arm over that span. While the Rockies front office was certainly attracted to his durability, they also likely noticed his high GB% (55.9% in 2017) and low FB% (22.1% in 2017, 10th best among qualifying relievers), huge assets for anyone about to call Coors Field their home. Unlike many of the guys in this bullpen, Shaw has rarely been asked to close out games; he has the same number of career saves as Adam Ottavino (11) in over 100 more innings. Shaw will probably be below McGee and Ottavino on the list to close if Davis falters. Bud Black will likely use Shaw as a 7th or 8th inning guy with the lead.

The final option was an addition from last offseason. Mike Dunn often gets compared to Boone Logan, since both were left-handed relievers who signed 3-year deals with Colorado. After an excellent April 2017, it looked as though Dunn would outperform Logan. However, Dunn went on to allow 9 runs in 8.2 innings in May, and he was pushed into lower-leverage appearances. From the start of the year through the All-Star Break, Dunn faced an average of 3.5 batters per appearance; that dropped to less than 3.0 in the second half of the season. Dunn ended up with a 10.19 K/9, in line with his career mark, but his 5.01 BB/9 was the worst he’d put up since 2012. Bud Black was content to play matchups with Dunn when he was earning $4 million in 2017, but with his salary escalating to $7 million in 2018, Black may be tempted to move Dunn back into a setup role. As it stands, I expect Dunn to be a LOOGY and a matchup play unless someone ahead of him runs into trouble.

The Long Reliever

Chris Rusin has been the unsung hero of the Rockies bullpen since moving out of the rotation in 2016. Rusin appeared in 60 games in 2017, totaling 85 innings with an ERA of 2.65 (best among all Rockies pitchers). Being able to get over three innings when necessary makes Rusin seem like a throwback to a time before specialized relievers and “one-out only” guys, and his ability to eat innings makes him valuable even beyond what he does on the field. Rusin can minimize damage and keep a game close, and he can appear in any inning depending on the game situation. Expect him to be among the league leaders in relief innings again in 2018.

The Other Guys

There are a few. First, Scott Oberg made some strides in 2017, posting a 4.94 ERA and compiling 15 holds while being a consistent high-leverage asset for Bud Black. Oberg’s K/9 jumped from 6.79 in 2015 (and 6.92 in a short 2016) to 8.49 in 2017, and his BB/9 and HR/9 fell to career-best marks as well. All that’s left for Oberg is to turn those peripheral gains into on-the-field results. His best results in 2017 came later in the year, and he allowed only 3 runs in 13.1 innings in September. Oberg should slot back into a 6th or 7th inning role with the club on the plus side.

Then there’s Carlos Estévez, who after a stint as a closer in 2016 was slotted into a short-relief role to begin 2017. Estevez was shuffled back and forth between Denver and Albuquerque a few times over the course of the season, keeping the roster spots of Dunn, Ottavino, Tyler Anderson and Chad Qualls warm while they were on the DL. One-third of the runs given up by Estevez in 2017 (7 of 21) were in a disastrous appearance against Washington on April 27th; removing that start would reduce his middling 2017 ERA of 5.57 to a nicer 3.69. The common criticism of Wild Thing since he first appeared on prospect radars has been his lack of command, which seems to have improved; his BB/9 and HR/9 rates both fell in 2017 compared to 2016. Estevez finished 2017 on a good note, not allowing a run in 8 appearances from September 14th onward. Estevez may not be a top option for Bud Black due to all the new signings, but he’s still a guy to turn to when the Rockies need an out.

Another oft forgotten option is Jairo Diaz, who completed his long journey back to the majors last summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery before the 2016 season. The surgery didn’t appear to sap his impressive power arm, and he managed to average nearly 98 MPH on his fastball over 5 innings in the majors. However, Diaz was overall ineffective over those five innings, and he spent the latter part of the season back in Triple-A. If Diaz can find some control to go with his flamethrower arm, he could be a late-inning asset as well.

Zac Rosscup is the final other guy. He joined the Rockies last year in return from the Cubs for Matt Carasiti. While he only pitched seven innings after being traded in June, most of his appearances were successful low-leverage LOOGY outings. Rosscup struggled against righties last season, who hit .529 off of him with two homers. His likely role this year is as a LOOGY again, albeit one who gets some more chances in late and close situations.

The Other Other Guys

Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman are fighting with Kyle Freeland for the last rotation spot, and all three of them made appearances out of the bullpen last season. My money would be on Senzatela as a long relief option, with Hoffman getting starts in Triple-A until something opens up. The Rockies also have the option of moving some of their starting pitcher prospects to the bullpen, if the need arises. The other reliever on the 40-man roster is 27-year-old Rayan Gonzalez, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Off of the 40-man, Jerry Vasto, James Farris, Austin House, Brooks Pounders, and Shane Broyles have received non-roster invites to MLB camp this spring, and will be waiting in the minors should any of these relievers start to fall.