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Youth meets experience in Colorado’s 2022 bullpen

Veterans Alex Colomé, Daniel Bard and Carlos Estévez battle for A-list late innings, while 2021 debuts round the relief core

There is a combined 37.5 years of MLB service in the Rockies’ projected bullpen this year (per FanGraphs). Jhoulys Chacín and Alex Colomé make up nearly 50% of that service on their own:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

We haven’t seen this kind of service time from Colorado relievers since the ‘Super Bullpen’ experiment with Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. The team spent a lot less money for experience this time around (Colomé: 1-year, $4.1 million; Chacin: 1-year, $1.25 million).

Colomé is not the closer Wade Davis was supposed to be, as his contract will suggest. He’s still in position to make late-inning statements, and FanGraphs has gone as far as placing him as the projected closer — even ahead of Daniel Bard, making more money (1-year, $4.4 million).

Colorado had five different relief pitchers make MLB debuts in 2021 — Lucas Gilbreath, Justin Lawrence, Jordan Sheffield, Ben Bowden and Julian Fernández — and all five are back with the organization. This alone shows the relief core is more prepared, and after all were shut out of a minor league season in 2020, perhaps the true test of their worth is not 2021, but the 2022 season in front of us.

The Rockies lost the services of Mychal Givens this past year, a 2020 trade deadline pickup that departed in 2021 the same way he arrived. Colorado has also parted with Yency Almonte this year after a stellar 2020 turned into a dismal 2021. (He recently signed to the Dodgers so cover your eyes, those that remember Jake McGee’s post-Colorado path...)

The bullpen is usually the most volatile of our State of the Position articles, but some preliminary signs will show 2022 can be more stable than 2021.

Closers and Setups

  • Alex Colomé
  • Daniel Bard
  • Carlos Estévez

Manager Bud Black removed Bard from closer duties last summer after a stretch of poor performances. Estévez was the eventual replacement and would finish the year with an ERA in the fours; it was better than Bard’s, but it still wasn’t enough to comfortably name him the closer this spring.

This is where Colomé makes it interesting. He brings an awesome mix of fastballs and cutters, and while his fastball won’t touch the triple-digit velocities of Bard and Estévez, it will most certainly contrast their pitch mixes of heaters, changeups and sliders.

Bard throws more sliders than any other pitch; Estévez throws a lot of heaters, while Colomé works with a cutter around 80% of the time. In other words, the Rockies are working with a lot of different flavors from the seventh inning on. This can be great to keep hitters off balance, but lest we forget that 1. the big-spending Twins turned down an option for Colomé this year, 2. Bard has played in just two of the past nine seasons, and 3. Estévez’s career ERA+ is narrowly above average.

The expectation should not be the same as the moment Colorado signed Davis, McGee and Shaw, but it could easily end up as a better result than what appeared over the life of those deals.

Colorado is paying a little over $11 million this year for the new trio. You never know when bullpen value can skyrocket out of tenured players, too (see: Jake McGee, post-Colorado).

Middle Relievers

  • Robert Stephenson
  • Lucas Gilbreath
  • Jhoulys Chacín
  • Tyler Kinley
  • Justin Lawrence*
  • Ben Bowden*
  • Julian Fernández*

*Two of these arms will likely start the season in Triple-A.

There are no minor league options available for Stephenson or Chacín, so those are your two locks (at least to start the season).

We then have the four relievers that debuted in 2021 in the mix of middle relief, ranging from nasty low-3/4 Lawrence, to the most-experienced Gilbreath, to the lefty Bowden, to the flamethrowing Fernández. The one additional arm is the well-travelled Tyler Kinley.

Colorado exercised a lot of minor league options with young relievers in 2021, treating the final spots in the bullpen as a revolving door between Triple-A Albuquerque. This was notably the case with Lawrence and Bowden and it could run its course again, but the revolving door ‘safety net’ will start to dwindle in 2023.

Long Relievers

  • Jordan Sheffield (?)
  • Ty Blach*
  • Chad Kuhl*
  • Ryan Rolison*

*One of these arms will (likely) be the Rockies’ fifth starter. One will likely start the year as a Triple-A starter, while one could default themselves to the long relief spot.

Jordan Sheffield had more appearances (30) than he did innings last year (29 13), so it’s tough to really define him as a long reliever like FanGraphs does. 43 of his 102 career minor league appearances have been starts, however, and the Rockies have already defined plenty of their short relief roles from last year. Sheffield could be the most equipped of the returning arms to work multiple innings, but he could also find himself in a short relief role after finishing 2021 on the injured list.

This is where the Rockies have protected their assets — and done a little more than they did last year. Jhoulys Chacín was signed hours before Opening Day 2021 for long relief help. The urgency to fill the rotation in 2022 has, in turn, helped define a long reliever.

The departure of Jon Gray has forced this, as opposed to the 2021 spring training injury suffered by Kyle Freeland. Colorado has signed Ty Blach, the once-San Francisco Giant, and Chad Kuhl, the once-Pittsburgh Pirate, and while one is the presumable fifth starter, the other could serve as the club’s long reliever.

Patiently waiting is the young lefty Ryan Rolison, hoping to finally make his debut after appendicitis prevented it in 2021. The Rockies will likely groom Rolison as a starter in Triple-A this spring, but if the team strikes gold with Blach or Kuhl in the rotation, Rolison could be forced to take a José Mujica-esque debut as a reliever.