The unknowns remain many.
Will spring training and, therefore the 2021 season, start on time? It’s hard to imagine that being the case, but only time will tell.
Will the National League have a DH again? The MLB won’t announce a decision.
Will Scott Oberg be able to stay healthy and return as the anchor of the bullpen? I hope so and Black is optimistic.
But there is one question that is easy to answer. Will the Rockies succeed if they don’t add a reliable lefthander to the bullpen? Absolutely not. 100 percent no.
No offense to Phillip Diehl, the only lefty currently on the Rockies relief roster, but the 26-year-old has an 8.78 ERA and 1.500 WHIP in 13 1/3 innings in his limited MLB time over the last two years. He has potential with 12 strikeouts and only three walks in that time, but he doesn’t seem quite ready for the label of only left arm in the bullpen.
According to Bud Black’s media session on Wednesday, the manager still believes the Rockies are contenders. However, this is the last year of that window with Nolan Arenado being able to opt out at season’s end and Trevor Story becoming a free agent after 2021. The time is now. The Rockies need to send a message to Arenado and Story that they’ll fight to win. Seasons like 2018 and 2019 won’t suffice. The Rockies can’t wait for young lefty relievers, like recent acquisitions Yoan Aybar and Ian Clarkin, or even Diehl, to develop. It’s time to make a deal.
Considering the lingering collective bad taste left in the front office’s and fans’ mouths from the expensive failure of the Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee disaster, a big deal for an arm like Brad Hand is out of the question. Another big problem is that solid southpaw relievers are hard to come by. Out of the 80 relievers who remain free agents, only 16 are lefties. In uncharted waters of pandemic-era baseball that’s left owners tightening their financial belts, it’s going to take creativity and grit to find the missing puzzle piece (yeah, it’s going to take more than one, but let’s just start small). Maybe a different approach is required as well. This is a beyond outside-the-box idea, so start stretching now to see if your imagination can be this flexible.
Ok, ready? It’s stereotypical and slightly ridiculous, but the Rockies need a big-bearded reliever. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. This is what 2020 has come to. Throw analytics out the window (we know the Rockies are good with that anyway) and bring on the superstition.
That being said, there is some history to back this up. Look at bullpen legends Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage, iconic facial hair has become associated with late-inning heat and clutch performances on the mound. Look at the successful bullpens of World Series champions over the last few years and there is a frequent common denominator: a gnarly beard. Would the Giants have won three World Series in five years without the beards of Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo? I highly doubt it.
In 2020, the Dodgers had Kenley Jansen and Tony Gonsolin, a starter who made one relief appearance. Sean Doolittle led the way for the Nationals in 2019. The Red Sox had Craig Kimbrel in 2018. The Astros didn’t have a beard in the bullpen (Dallas Keuchel did represent in the rotation), so they had to steal signs to cheat their way to a title in 2017. Travis Wood did the beard work in helping the Cubs break the curse in 2016. The Royals had the magic of Luke Hochevar’s whiskers in 2015. Beards aren’t required and, obviously, teams have won rings without them, but there is something to the fear-the-beard mantra. After all, the Rockies picked up Pat Neshek to get some beard luck for the 2017 playoff run and they did make it to the postseason.
The Rockies’ current bullpen isn’t beardless at all and it might be a total coincidence, but the best relief arm last year, Daniel Bard, has a pretty decent beard. While out of action in 2020, Scott Oberg consistently sports a shadow of a beard, as does Tyler Kinley, who was also fairly solid for the Rockies last season. So that’s a good start, but just like Christopher Walken needed more cowbell, I think the Rockies bullpen needs more beard.
Of the 16 available left-handed relievers, seven — José Álvarez, Andrew Chafin, Sean Doolittle, Ross Detwiler, T.J. McFarland, Adam Morgan, and Chasen Shreve — have some kind of facial hair (with the disclaimer that things could have changed in the offseason and it’s possible that players got tired of beards and masks and grabbed the trimmers).
If anyone is going along with this silly theory, then we might as well go all in and say that the bigger the beard, the better. So, if the Rockies are going to sign a left-handed free agent this offseason, let’s make it Sean Doolittle. He’s got playoff and World Series champion experience to go with career marks like a 9.3 WAR, 3.07 ERA, and 0.968 WHIP. Even though he was set to make $6.5 million in 2020, which would likely put him out of the Rockies’ price range, he struggled with injuries in 2020. He was hit hard and couldn’t find his groove in the first part of the season and later landed on the IL with a fatigued knee. When he came back, he returned to Doolittle form. He did this so well that he finished the 2020 season with six straight scoreless appearances while allowing zero extra-base hits and holding hitters to a .143 average.
Doolittle will be 34 years old in the 2021 season and since he’s never been a pitcher who’s relied on the high heat, he’s mixing in his slider and changeup to get the job done, as well as keeping the ball low in the zone. His 2020 season did end early after pulling an oblique muscle on Sept. 10, and while the two stints on the IL make him a slightly riskier bet, it will also lower his price tag. Doolittle could be the hairy answer to one of the Rockies’ problems.
There are always exceptions to the fear-the-beard motto, especially since this is by far not a rule. Jairo Díaz struggled mightily last year and always has a beard or goatee of some kind and Wade Davis was … well, Wade Davis. Although, he did set the Rockies record for saves in 2018 before falling apart.
But just imagine a scenario where Doolittle, Bard, and Oberg become a three-bearded-headed monster shutting down teams and helping the rotation get the wins they deserve. What if the final innings of Rockies games could be something to look forward to and not just something to nervously and fearfully dread? Charlie Blackmon sports one of the best beards in baseball and is arguably the team’s most consistent hitter. He’s also “a little stitious.” Maybe it’s time for the Rockies to become beardstitious.
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Black is a self-admitted traditionalist, and yet, he changed his mind about many of the rule changes in 2020. It turns out he likes the DH, he likes starting extra innings with a runner on second base (but did say it could be in the 11th or 12th), he’s down for at least one seven-inning game in a doubleheader, and he is a fan of the expanded playoff format (with the Rockies in the Dodgers division, this should be a given). Not surprisingly, he’s still against the rule of having relievers face a minimum of three batters. Without a lefty in the bullpen and with the 2020 bullpen problems, of course he is.
While it’s refreshing not to have a Nolan trade rumor story, this one is possibly just as depressing. Tony Blengino makes the case that Arenado has changed as a hitter and not for the better, all while saying that Coors Field makes him look better than he really is. While he credits the third baseman for his phenomenal fielding, low strikeout rate, high fly ball rate, and for staying healthy most of the time, he also dings him for his extremely high pop-up rate, consistently low line drive rate, and steadily declining fly ball authority. He argues that if Arenado doesn’t change his approach for more solid contact resulting in more singles and doubles and fewer homers, he might be a former all-star hitter on the decline who pops out too much.
I guess this could be good news if possible suitors read this and it could squash the trade talk, but it’s also hard to swallow as a Rockies fan and hard to imagine for the 29-year-old Arenado. He did struggle in 2020, but he was also injured. A big 2021 could squash this notion too.
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