The key to any quality team is having a bullpen that can be effective. 2023 saw several standout performances for the Colorado Rockies, but it still had its problems. Some of those problems and concerns persevere heading into 2024, but one such problem is the somewhat uncertainty surrounding the role of the closer.
As spring training gets underway, we will have Purple Row’s annual State of the Position articles to cover each aspect of the team’s roster including the whole bullpen, but this offseason question deserves further, focused exploration before we get to that point. The closer role is an important one for the Rockies and while there are likely incumbents, nothing feels certain yet.
In 2023 the Rockies placed 26th in all of baseball with 32 saves. While not comprised of only closers, they tied for first with 33 blown saves, with Jake Bird having the second-most blown saves in baseball at 11. Pierce Johnson led the club with 13 saves before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in July. The team had six different pitchers record at least one save last season, and it seems that the team will have plenty of options in 2024.
Following struggles by Johnson in early June, the Rockies handed the mantle of closer to Justin Lawrence. The move made sense as the hard-throwing sidearm hurler had a 2.76 ERA through 45 2⁄3 innings with 45 strikeouts, having given up just one home run in 31 hits allowed. By the All-Star break, he was already one of the most used relievers in the league by both total innings and appearances and opposing batters were hitting just .188/.284/.269 against him during the first half and had five saves in June
Things began to swiftly decline in the second half as over 31 second-half appearances his ERA was 5.22 over 29 1⁄3 innings. He still struck out 33 batters but gave up four home runs and 35 hits while opposing batters were hitting .299/.400/.470 against him. He strung together just six more saves in the second half, but that is more of a symptom of the Rockies' anemic offense and lack of opportunity.
Perhaps a clear focus on closing from the get-go and not overworking him could help Lawrence grow into one of the game’s best closers thanks to his wipeout slider/sweeper and ability to pump the gas when he needs to. I’d expect him to have the inside track to win the job out of spring training.
Daniel Bard’s Rockies career has been an interesting one. Since making his comeback in 2020, he’s been really good every other year. 2021 was full of struggles, then he bounced back with an incredible season in 2022 where his trade value was at its highest. Instead, the Rockies signed him to a two-year extension and he struggled mightily in 2023. Now, Bard looks to put 2023 in the rear-view mirror and get back to 2022 form and show that he is worth the almost $10 million the Rockies are paying him in his contract season.
Since 2020, Bard has tallied 61 saves, including the 34 games he saved in 2022. Struggles with anxiety and command among other things were bothersome in 2023, resulting in Bard converting just one save opportunity and posting a 4.56 ERA. His loss of command was most worrying for him as it persisted throughout the year, ever since he pitched in the World Baseball Classic. He issued 49 walks (the highest of his career) to just 47 strikeouts in 49 1⁄3 innings of work. Folks will be quick to point to a case of the “yips” that plagued Bard before, and that is a real concern to have, but hopefully, a regular offseason and spring training will help Bard get back on track as he enters his age 39 season.
History and age will give Bard an advantage to reclaim the closer role and whether or not he does have a good spring, don’t be surprised when Bud Black makes that announcement.
The pitcher with the third-most saves for the Rockies was none other than Tyler Kinley with five. It wasn’t the triumphant return from injury that Kinley would have liked in 2023 as he appeared in just 18 games, 16 1⁄3 innings, and pitched to a 6.06 ERA. Still, he finished 11 games and earned five saves while striking out 17 against six walks. A normal, healthy, offseason and actual spring training will be good for Kinley in general as he was having an incredible season before going down with an elbow injury in 2022.
He has mainly worked as a middle reliever and set-up man in his career, but the Rockies believe that Kinely is reliable and effective enough to close out more games with a narrow lead. Since joining the Rockies in 2020, Kinley has proven to be an effective strike-thrower and has always done well in limiting home runs. There are times he could lose his command (just like everyone else on this list), but his pitch mix and veteran stability could be enough for the Rockies to hand the closer mantle to him.
Beyond these names, the Rockies could find themselves giving opportunities to any number of other players. Victor Vodnik and Gavin Hollowell both have closing potential. Lucas Gilbreath and Jalen Beeks could see some action as could could Nick Mears. The team could even decide to go with the “closer by committee” approach and focus on match-ups rather than permanently defined roles. Either way, the role of the closer is a question mark and will be one to eagerly keep an eye on as spring training rolls around in a month.
The international signing period took place and the Rockies signed a good number of players, but the highlight was two of the top international prospects they picked up. Thomas Harding gives a quick rundown of each player and what the Rockies like about them.
Kyle Newman tries to make sense of the MLB.com prediction that the Rockies could win the World Series in 2033. He points out the problems as to why it won’t happen (pitching, developing etc.), and why it could happen at some point (Dodgers financial flops etc).
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