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The 2021 bullpen takes a step forward

Oberg is back. Estévez is recovered. Givens is experienced. Stephenson is new. There is nowhere to go but up.

The 2021 Bullpen: It can only get better.

Major League Baseball had all sorts of interruptions in a shortened 2020 season. The Rockies’ bullpen performance may have been a direct reflection; a collective 6.77 ERA was the worst in franchise history. The alternate site experiment kept a lot of arms out of routine work in the minors, and further setbacks kept the Rockies from being further equipped. The franchise was on thin ice if their go-to relievers were unavailable.

Colorado’s late-inning landscape is bound to improve—at a much lower expense than before. Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee are now off the books, and many arms have something to prove in 2021.

Top of the Pen

Daniel Bard, 35, will begin the year as the closer. Yency Almonte, 26, will also be in the late-inning mix. Both were the bullpen bWAR leaders from last year.

Following a seven-year big league absence, Bard’s efforts in 2020 crowned him National League Comeback Player of the Year. He worked a 3.65 ERA in 24 23 innings, picking up six saves and posting the second-best ERA+ of his career. Bard’s heater averaged 97 MPH last year, right on pace with his days in Boston from 2009-2011. He used his slider more often in 2020; his fastball use hit a career low.

Almonte worked a 2.93 ERA last year. He was often a one-inning guy in the seventh or eighth, covering the 2020 duties that McGee and Shaw were largely in line for. Almonte will again be a bargain for the Rockies with just over one year of MLB service, and most of his high-leverage work has come in empty ballparks. It will be fun to see him take on those outings in front of fans.

Both Bard and Almonte have a similar pitch mix: four-seamer, slider, sinker and changeup. Almonte’s fastball use has also declined; he threw 23.4 percent less in 2020 than he did in his debut season. All but two of his strikeouts came by way of the slider, and last year was Almonte’s first using his slider as his primary pitch—while Bard still throws his fastball most often. Their sliders are similar (low efficiency, ‘gyro’ spin), but Almonte’s had a better whiff percentage last year (38.8 to 32.3 percent). The two arms work well in succession, with Almonte’s fastball working in the mid-90’s and Bard’s nearing triple digits.

This could be the setup/closer combo, but lest we forget the triumphant return of Scott Oberg. He rejoins the Rockies in 2021 after missing all of last year with complications from blood clots. His last big league outing came on August 16, 2019, in a year he posted a 2.25 ERA and 1.107 WHIP in 56 frames.

Oberg’s slider use has also jumped since his MLB debut (19.4 to 43.3 percent). He has cut his sinker out of his arsenal, and his changeup is thrown almost exclusively to lefties. It is likely that Oberg will continue on a two-pitch trend (fastballs and sliders); if he pitches like he has in the past, he could very well follow up Bard for NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

The supporting staples

Mychal Givens is Colorado’s highest-paid reliever. He held a 1.38 ERA with the Orioles last year before being shipped to the Rockies at the trade deadline. It may be unjust to label the 30-year-old sidearmer as a ‘supporting staple’ after his past success in Baltimore, but his 6.75 ERA in Colorado didn’t leave a sizable impression. Givens has an above-average ERA+ in each of his six MLB seasons, however, and has also collected saves in the AL East. It will be interesting to monitor his pitch selection moving forward, and whether he resorts back to a pitch mix that was dominant in Baltimore. He threw more changeups than sliders for the first time in his career last season, perhaps attributed to the Colorado altitude.

Carlos Estévez has become a bullpen regular since his 2016 debut, excluding a 2018 season where he was out of the league. Estévez has ranged from temporary Rockies closer to low-leverage reliever, but has collected a (somewhat) steady workload in four years. His 2020 campaign was slowed after a comebacker drilled his throwing hand on August 16; his season ERA before the injury was 3.48 in 10 13 innings (and three of his four runs allowed at that point came in one outing). He would pitch 14 23 innings with a 9.82 ERA after the injury, raising his season figure to 7.50. Opponents managed a .609 slugging percentage off his fastball a year ago. (Perhaps Estévez should actually throw more heaters: Jake McGee had a ‘similar’ fastball and cut his opposing SLG from .657 to .361 in one year with the Dodgers—with 96.4 percent fastballs.)

Unlike other bullpen arms, Tyler Kinley and Jairo Díaz throw more sliders than fastballs. Kinley pitched 23 23 innings for Colorado last year after throwing 49 13 for the Marlins in 2019. His ERA jumped from 3.65 to 5.32 in those two seasons, but both his FIP and xFIP were better in 2020 than the previous year. Díaz posted a below-average ERA+ in 2020 (70), but it was his second consecutive year of routine work with the Rockies. He collected four saves when Bard wasn’t available.

Fighting for a spot

Robert Stephenson was a November acquisition in the deal that sent Jeff Hoffman to the Reds. Following his 2020 season in which he posted a 9.90 ERA, his big league future could be largely dependent on how he closes out the Cactus League. He’s allowed one earned run in four spring innings so far, and the 28-year-old has five years of big league experience under his belt. Stephenson is out of minor league options, so his placement on the Opening Day roster could be probable.

Jordan Sheffield was a Rule 5 pickup this winter. There wasn’t enough room for the Dodgers to protect him, so the Vanderbilt product joins the Rockies mix after time in High-A, Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. The 25-year-old may be due for an eventual call-up this year, and FanGraphs even projects him on the Opening Day roster.

Jesus Tinoco has seen limited big league work over the past two years. He was released by the Rockies in 2019, only to return in 2020 after five innings with the Marlins. He posted a 1.04 ERA last year in 8 23 innings, earning him an invite to spring training. His primary pitch is a Savant-defined sinker, which can complement other arms in the Colorado bullpen. Over 80 percent of Tinoco’s pitches are either sinkers or curveballs.

Joe Harvey appeared in just 3 13 innings for the Rockies in 2020, and remains in the mix as a non-roster invitee. He’s allowed one run in three Cactus League frames. Harvey was acquired from the Yankees during the 2019 season and posted better Triple-A figures with New York than he did with Colorado. He spent the majority of 2020 at the alternate site.

Left-handed questions

Nobody in this article so far is left-handed. Phillip Diehl and Ben Bowden (No. 13 PuRP) are the likely candidates to fill that need, as well as non-roster invitee Brian Gonzalez. Bowden has allowed one earned run in 4 1/3 innings this spring and appears to be the frontrunner; Diehl and Gonzalez both have spring ERA’s over 10. Bowden spent all of 2020 at the alternate site, pitching in 2019 for Double-A Hartford (25 23 IP, 1.05 ERA) and Triple-A Albuquerque (26 IP, 5.88 ERA). Diehl has thrown 13 13 MLB innings in his career, and a strong end to his Cactus League campaign could put him in better position to crack an MLB roster again.

Long relief unknowns

Chi Chi González and Dereck Rodríguez are further depth options in long relief. Diamondbacks beat writer Steve Gilbert wrote last week how the Rockies don’t really have a long reliever, so at least one of them might stay in the big leagues. González was non-tendered by the Rockies this winter and Rodríguez was DFA’d by the Giants last year.

Colorado could also fill a long relief void with José Mujica (No. 29 PuRP), who made his first start of the spring on Monday. His big league work so far has been exclusively in relief, but his two career outings haven’t exactly been long. Mujica has made 82 career minor league starts in 90 appearances with the Rays, working up to Triple-A Durham. The Rockies may keep him in Triple-A Albuquerque as a starter.

On the farm

Tommy Doyle (No. 20 PuRP) pitched just 2 13 big league innings last year and allowed six earned runs. In 2019 he managed a 3.25 ERA in hitter-friendly Lancaster, which helped him earn that big league debut. He spent three seasons in the ACC with the University of Virginia and has been accustomed to a standard minor league schedule since a 2017 debut with the Grand Junction Rockies. A normal minor league season should do Doyle well, especially after the alternate site experience in 2020.

Justin Lawrence (No. 26 PuRP) has appeared in Cactus League action this spring. His career 8.71 ERA in Triple-A suggests further refining before an MLB debut, but the 26-year-old has plenty of younger players coming up behind him. After a four-pitch walk to kick off his outing on Monday, Lawrence worked well against a bunch of Dodger big-leaguers.

In case of disaster

It may be a long shot to see Ryan Rolison (No. 1 PuRP) in the Rockies bullpen, but he is a lefty after all. The Rockies didn’t pursue this last year—they brought in Givens at the trade deadline to fill the bullpen—so a reliever Rolison could be unlikely. If further depth is needed, the Rockies may elect to use a few starter prospects (Rolison, Chris McMahon, Sam Weatherly, Karl Kauffman) as big league relievers at least for 2021. It could be a stretch to see them in the league this year, but such a jump is not unheard of.