The Colorado Rockies find themselves at the bottom of a unique National League reliever category — one that makes a season-ending injury to Lucas Gilbreath even more costly:
The Rockies have used 16 total relievers if position players Randal Grichuk and Brian Serven are factored out.
Colorado must reallocate Gilbreath’s work for the 26 games that remain in 2022.
Rewind to early June: an ulnar nerve injury to Tyler Kinley was an abrupt ending to a potential All-Star campaign. Kinley’s consistent performance helped everybody, not just from his sustained late-inning dominance, but from keeping others from entering his games and further tiring the bullpen.
Gilbreath was recently placed on the injured list due to a flexor strain in his throwing arm. He had made the fourth-most pitching appearances for the Rockies this year, and with Colorado now fifth in the National League West, there is no big need to rush his recovery.
For the active bullpen that remains, September gets complicated.
With Colorado’s limited reliever depth and production in the early season, the bullpen phone in Albuquerque may have well been a direct line to the Coors Field front office. The reserve in Triple-A has been limited, however, as the Isotopes have a team ERA of 6.86 this year (the highest in the Pacific Coast League).
Chad Smith and Justin Lawrence have bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues for much of this season, a role that Gilbreath covered in early 2021. It could be by default that Smith and Lawrence are automatic fillers through the finish line.
September relief work can serve as a great developmental opportunity for younger arms, including current big leaguers and minor league prospects. The Rockies have unique roadblocks to overcome, however:
- Burnout could be real. It’s been a long season, Coors Field is laborious for pitchers, and workloads have already jumped with Kinley out since June.
- If the Rockies had a deeper bullpen reserve, one could argue the club would have already used more relievers than a NL-fewest 18 this year.
Retrace Some Steps
Before we go further: Relief pitcher Robert Stephenson was designated for assignment last month and has since been claimed off waivers by the Pirates. Judging by this move, bullpen depth was not a big enough concern for the Rockies to keep him around.
— but —
If the extent of Gilbreath’s injury was known a few weeks earlier, would Stephenson still be in a Colorado uniform?
The Immediate Bullpen
Gilbreath’s IL placement in late August came on the same day Alex Colomé returned from injury, so a linear swap helped some immediate needs for relief pitching.
The Rockies did recall Chad Smith from Triple-A on September 1 (he had been there since August 6). This may suggest that bullpen depth is currently a greater concern in Albuquerque than it is in Denver, but with any late-inning struggles this month, the Rockies could quickly show a priority and tap into a reserve.
If it comes to it, there are two ways to satisfy that bullpen need: a waiver pickup or a call-up. There are some options, if needed:
Perhaps the easiest move: Blach was recalled as the 27th man for the Rockies’ Monday doubleheader. He has been pitching as a Triple-A reliever exclusively since late July, and the Rockies wouldn’t need to adjust their 40-man roster if Blach were called up.
The following names are pitchers on the outside looking in; it doesn’t mean they ‘cannot’ be called up, but it could take far more than a dominant early September:
Perhaps your favorite fireballer: Fernández was chucking 103 MPH for the Rockies this time last year. (His heaters were enjoyed a little more than his tough 10.80 ERA.) Designated for assignment in early June, Fernández cleared waivers and has pitched exclusively with Triple-A Albuquerque this year.
After a tremendous July (10 2⁄3 IP, 1.69 ERA), he suddenly allowed more contact in August (12 1⁄3 IP, 8.03 ERA). Fernández hasn’t allowed an earned run in five of his last six outings (7 2⁄3 IP), but his collective body of work (and non-40-man roster status) could limit him to Albuquerque for the rest of the year.
An arm with nearly 100 MLB innings to his name: Allen was quietly signed by the Rockies in late August and has since pitched seven innings in Triple-A (6.43 ERA). This is a move that could fill a left-handed hole without Gilbreath, but it would also require a separate move to make room on the 40-man roster.
Allen’s signing could have been for Albuquerque to simply reach the 2022 finish line, which might explain why the deal wasn’t highly publicized. Don’t rule out a 2023 spring training invite for this veteran, however.
Like Fernández, it has been a roller coaster-type year for Lee. A strong July (2.31 ERA, 11 2⁄3 IP) was followed by a tough August (6.97 ERA, 10 1⁄3 IP). Lee had a particularly tough outing on August 24 against Round Rock (2⁄3 IP, 6 ER), but without it, he’s been throwing quite well since July 1.
Hold your enthusiasm for a moment: Pint hasn’t pitched since August 18 and is currently on the Triple-A injured list. This alone could keep him off the mound for the rest of the season.
He does have a sub-three ERA since July 1 (between Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque), so we’re at least closer than ever to his long-anticipated debut. There is still a decent amount of time left on the Triple-A schedule this year, too.
(How cool would it be if Wynton Bernard AND Riley Pint were called up in the same year?)
The Rockies picked up Dinelson Lamet on waivers in the middle of the season. Arms like Hirokazu Sawamura from the Red Sox have been available for similar pickup in recent days; while a move like this may not plan for the future, it could fall in an ‘experience’ category.
It could be a safe bet to assume Blach is the candidate for a big league call, given his roster status and MLB tenure. Much can still be proven in the waning days of 2022, however.
★ ★ ★
It has been a strong 2022 for Gilbreath since some early-season woes sent him down to Triple-A. His journey is further detailed in this link from Rox Pile, along with some quotes from Rockies manager Bud Black on the injury-induced course of action. Gilbreath is set to receive a PRP injection in his throwing arm in an effort to expedite his healing process.
It has been more than the bullpen struck with injury woes; after starting pitcher Antonio Senzatela suffered a season-ending ACL tear, the Rockies have been forced to navigate the remainder of 2022 with a tough absence in the starting rotation. Ryan Feltner had established his spot well before Senzatela’s injury, and his steps forward this year have helped the club find some stability following the loss of Jon Gray.
The Rockies’ rotation has seen Austin Gomber designated to the bullpen, José Ureña acquired in the middle of the season and Ty Blach demoted to Triple-A, so the stability from Feltner has served as a great developmental headline.
Bonus Headline: Wynton Bernard is back in Albuquerque
The Albuquerque Isotopes were on the road last week in Texas when Wynton Bernard was optioned back to Triple-A. Since being sent down, Bernard has posted a scorching hot batting slash of .417/.579/.583 (5-for-12) in four games.
He’s due for a thunderous applause at Isotopes Park tonight.
★ ★ ★
On the Farm
Monday, September 5: League-wide off day for all minor league affiliates
New series starting today:
Triple-A: El Paso Chihuahuas (SD) at Albuquerque Isotopes (COL)
Double-A: Somerset Patriots (NYY) at Hartford Yard Goats (COL)
High-A: Spokane Indians (COL) at Tri-City Dust Devils (LAA)
Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies (COL) at San Jose Giants (SF)
★ ★ ★
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