It is not often that the Colorado Rockies are mentioned in the same free agency rumors as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. That is the case with the buzz around free agent Adam Ottavino this winter.
However enticing it may be to bring back him, though, the Rockies should let Adam Ottavino go. That’s not necessarily a controversial opinion, as most people seem to assume the price tag will be high For example, Kiley McDaniel predicted a three-year, $45 million contract over at FanGraphs. But the Rockies keep getting mentioned as being still in the mix. It’s worth saying that they should not sign him to a big deal.
Will it sting to lose a fan favorite like Otto? Of course. Will it be especially annoying to see a guy who feels like our own wearing a Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies hat? It most certainly will be. But the Rockies are coming off a season in which they learned at least two hard lessons about the risks of paying big for relievers.
Bryan Shaw posted a 130 ERA+ in 2017, his last season with the Cleveland Indians before he hit free agency. That collapsed to a 79 ERA+ in his disastrous 2018. Jake McGee posted a 140 ERA+ in 2017 as he earned himself a fresh new deal with the Rockies. That went all the way down to a 73 ERA+ last year. Both of those pitchers were notably absent from the postseason roster. They might bounce back, but those contracts already look bad, despite how good both of them looked in 2017.
Ottavino is in a different class than those guys when he’s good. He posted a 193 ERA+ with 13 K/9 last year. He was absolutely dominant, and he also feels like a different case because he is so smart and thoughtful in his approach. It’s not unreasonable to think he can maintain his excellent level of play. But there are also reasons to be skeptical that he can.
At 33, Ottavino is not young. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and then dealt with some lingering shoulder injuries in 2017. Otto has a crossfire delivery that is a huge part of his success but also looks like it can be hard to repeat sometimes, leading to occasional erratic command and trouble with wild pitches. Maybe we feel like we can trust him more than other back-end relievers, but maybe we shouldn’t, especially not at the premium prices that come in free agency.
Let’s look at the likely bullpen without Ottavino, noting the possibility that the Rockies make a different move to upgrade:
- Chris Rusin
- Harrison Musgrave
- Jake McGee
- Bryan Shaw
- Seunghwan Oh
- Scott Oberg
- Wade Davis
- Multi-headed reliever monster made up of Jeff Hoffman-Mike Dunn-other-guys
That group will miss Ottavino. Any team will feel the loss of a pitcher who put up the season he just did. But it will be difficult for Ottavino to match his outstanding results from this past season simply because of how great he was, especially at the beginning of the season. Whatever team gets him will likely be paying for his dominance last season and not necessarily his future results. In the meantime, the Rockies have just as good of a chance of having a good bullpen as they did last year. This is the part where we talk about the randomness of bullpens.
Bullpens are, say it with me, weird and unpredictable. We repeat that a lot, but as long as the Rockies keep chasing big-ticket relievers and giving us reasons to repeat it, we will just keep on saying it. Last winter they paid Shaw and McGee to form a dominant duo of setup men in front of Davis. Their best setup guys ended up being Oberg, who until last year was still kicking back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A, and Ottavino, who was coming off a 2017 season where his ERA ended up north of 5.00.
Ottavino has a better chance than most to dominate in 2019 and beyond, but he also has a decent chance of crashing back to earth, not just because he is a reliever and that’s what relievers do, but also because he’s done it before already. In the meantime, the Rockies will be better off if they give themselves a lot of chances to have somebody emerge instead of just one expensive chance for Ottavino to do it again.
The Rockies should try to identify the best relievers and have a plan going into the season. It would have been great if that plan had worked last year. It will be great if the plan works this year. But because of the volatility of those plans, they should stay away from spending big on relievers in free agency, even ones as loved in purple as Otto. That should be the lesson from last winter.
Adam Ottavino’s emergence was a blast to watch. Fans felt invested in his Tommy John rehab and his long journey to dominance. It’s not just any player we’re talking about losing here. It’s not necessarily that the Rockies cannot afford Ottavino, but if we’re being realistic, they probably don’t have room to add another big contract to that bullpen, not with the holes they have elsewhere on the roster and not with the looming issue of a Nolan Arenado contract extension. They should look to spend money elsewhere.