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The Rockies bullpen may be sneaky good in 2023

Colorado’s relief corps may hold the best pure “stuff” we’ve seen in a long while

2022 was another tough season for Colorado’s relievers. Leading MLB in ERA once again, they struggled to find consistency and were unable to generate swings and misses from opposing lineups. After departures of some key figures in last year’s assemblage, one may be anxious about how 2023’s crew will fare. And yet...

Additions made in free agency have some fans and pundits excited for the future, and for good reason. From a purely “stuff” standpoint, this is arguably the most talent the Rockies have carried in their relief corps in ages - maybe ever. If the combination of young talent and veteran stalwarts comes together successfully, Colorado may have something special on their hands.

The closer

Following his contract extension that will keep him in purple pinstripes through the 2024 season, Daniel Bard is set to begin 2023’s campaign in the closer role. The 37-year-old fireballer was phenomenal last season, collecting 34 saves with a minuscule 1.79 ERA. He also found himself among the league’s elite in areas such as XBA, XWOBA, and xERA. The sinker-slider-changeup combo that he employs is a simple but effective tool that made him one of the National League’s very best relievers over the course of last season and earned him a spot on Team USA in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

Colorado will be looking for similar production from “Bardo” as he returns to lock things down in the ninth inning, though they do have alternative options if things go awry. Newly-acquired Brad Hand has plenty of closing experience and will likely be the next man up if Bard falters. Speaking of Hand...

The setups

Hand and newcomer Pierce Johnson are the two likeliest options to set up Bard for success in the late innings. Hand, a veteran closer in his own right with 131 career saves, was solid with Philadelphia last season in what was a relative bounceback year after some tougher recent campaigns. He’s the top candidate to hold down the eighth inning or take the ninth in situations of Bard needing rest. Johnson, meanwhile, is an intriguing pickup from San Diego that utilizes a fastball-curveball combination to great effect. The Colorado native figures to be a prominent figure in Colorado’s ‘pen as they attempt to fill the shoes of late-inning stalwart Carlos Estévez, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels this offseason.

How these two new faces fare will be a crucial part of Colorado’s hopes for a strong bullpen. Dinelson Lamet, brought back on a one-year contract after a nice debut season with the Rockies, will also factor into the setup scene, depending on circumstances and rest required. He may also be utilized more as a middle reliever, depending on how manager Bud Black wants to play things.

The middle relievers

Lucas Gilbreath was a lock for this spot, but he’ll miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Tyler Kinley is also set to begin the season on the injured list, though Colorado is hopeful he can rejoin the team at some point before season’s end. That would be helpful, as this is Kinley’s first year under his newly-extended contract. Those are two arms that will be missed by the Rockies at season’s start.

Instead, they’ll have to rely on the “Lion of Panama” Justin Lawrence and longtime Milwaukee Brewer Brent Suter. Lawrence, currently representing Team Panama in the WBC, struggled last season and is trying to find consistent success at the major league level. Mayhaps working in lower-leverage situations to bridge the mid-to-late innings will be an effective way to help him find his rhythm.

Suter, meanwhile, is entering his first season outside of Milwaukee. A quintessential solid hand, “the Raptor” provides more veteran experience to a relatively-young Rockies relief corps. He’s another arm that can fit in essentially anywhere, but will likely be used more in the middle reliever role to get things into the latter frames. Never recording an ERA as high as 4.50, he’s also a good trade candidate at the deadline if the Rockies are out of contention in July.

The long relievers

Stop me if you’ve heard this before - the long relievers will be a combination of old and new faces. The new man is Nick Mears, claimed off waivers from the Rangers in January. He’s only tossed 30 innings at the sport’s highest level but is likely to use his fastball-slider-curveball repertoire often for Colorado. At just 26-years of age, the right-hander has plenty of room to grow.

Mears will be joined by Denver-born Ty Blach, another player trying to find consistency in MLB. The lefty Blach will attempt to put a rough 2022 in the rearview mirror as he tries to cement his spot with the Rockies. With Gilbreath out, Blach, Hand, and Suter will be the southpaws in the ‘pen and be relied upon in matchups, but Blach’s spot may be the most precarious.

If Blach struggles again, Colorado could look to injured pitchers such as Ryan Rolison and Riley Pint to take relief roles. Rolison hasn’t pitched in a hot second and getting some long relief work in a cleanup setting could be beneficial for him. Pint, working on an oblique strain, could also do with some big league experience. Both former first round picks factor significantly into the Rockies future big picture plans, and getting them an introductory look at MLB action is a good place to start.

There are a lot of question marks surrounding Colorado’s bullpen unit, but there’s also a lot of talent. If these arms are able to pitch to their ability, the Rockies may have a relief corps that makes opposing lineups sweat. Now it’s up to them to make it work.