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Is the bullpen an answer to the Rockies starting pitching problem?

Colorado Rockies news and notes for Friday, January 5, 2024

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The pitching supply just isn’t meeting demand in Major League Baseball. While this might be the case most, if not all, of the time, things seem worse heading into 2024.

The Rockies really need starting pitching, as Purple Row’s Evan Lang detailed on Thursday, but they are far from the only ones.

At the end of November, USA Today’s Gabe Lacques estimated there were 41 open rotation spots around Major League Baseball, while only 19 of the top 89 free agents going into 2024 were starting pitchers. Things have changed over the last month, especially with teams signing international players and free agents, but the pool remains too shallow for everyone to be able to swim. Plus, as evident by their lack of action this offseason, the Rockies seem pretty scared to enter the water.

More and more teams have hope for improvement from struggling veterans or turn to rookies, but even then, the list isn’t long for immediate solutions. Of the current Top 100 list from MLB Pipeline, only 26 are pitchers and only two in the top 20 are pitchers. The Rockies have one of those 26 pitchers in No. 59 Chase Dollander, the 2023 first-round draft pick who had to have Tommy John surgery in 2023 and could miss all or most of 2024.

The Rockies have done a good job of adding pitchers to the farm system in the last year and have 15 pitchers in the organization’s top 30, according to MLB Pipeline. However, only three are likely to make MLB appearances in 2024: RHP Victor Vodnik, RHP Anthony Molina, and LHP Joe Rock. Vodnik and Molina are on the active rosters as relievers and Rock has only pitched one game at Triple-A Albuquerque.

Without enough pitchers to go around, some teams may go for a four-man starting rotation and/or have more bullpen games. The Rockies very well may have to go that route depending on the health of Ryan Feltner and Peter Lambert. However, the Rockies saw the quality of the bullpen take a hit as the season went on in 2023 because of overuse of top arms like Jake Bird, who led the league in innings pitched (84 1/3), and Justin Lawrence, who finished tied for ninth most (75).

Another option teams are opting for is turning to the bullpen to find a serviceable starter, and not just one to throw three or four innings. This has worked well for a few teams and pitchers in the past two seasons as CBS Sports reporter Mike Axisa pointed out recently. In 2022, the Angels moved Michael Lorenzen out of the pen for 18 starts with a 4.24 ERA and Tampa Bay put reliever Jeffrey Springer in the rotation for 25 starts with a 2.66 ERA. The Padres did it to Seth Lugo and the Rays did it to Zack Littell in 2023 and both posted sub 3.60 ERAs.

The Rockies might have to look at this as an option in 2024. Axisa points out three criteria for relievers who successfully transform into starters: history as a starter, three or more pitches, and good strike-throwing ability.

If we look at the Rockies active roster, we can rule out several pitchers for not having a versatile enough arsenal or for not having enough substantive time as starter in MLB, MiLB, or college. It’s not a good idea for others like Daniel Bard, who’s too close to the end of his career, or Lucas Gilbreath, who will need to ease into pitching as he’s returning from Tommy John surgery.

With those subtractions, three candidates emerge: Ty Blach, Jake Bird, and Anthony Molina.

Ty Blach

The first isn’t a new conversion. In his six MLB seasons, Blach has split time between the bullpen and rotation. In 2022, Blach started one game and was a reliever in 23. In 2023, the lefty started 13 games, pitched from the pen in seven, and also spent some time doing both in Albuquerque. Last season, he was better as a starter (5.29 starting ERA vs. 6.75 in relief). He had the fourth lowest walk-per-nine among Rockies pitchers with at least 20 innings in 2023 at 2.77. He has four pitches: sinker (55%), changeup (22.1%), cutter (16.5%), and a curveball (6.4%). Blach had some great games, like the three-hit, one-run, seven-inning gem vs. Baltimore, but he also gave up 15 homers in 78 innings. The Rockies signed Blach to a minor league deal in December and he might be the least risky, but also has the lowest ceiling.

Anthony Molina

The Rockies nabbed Molina from the Rays in the Rule 5 Draft in December, citing Germán Márquez comparisons. The Rays signed Molina in 2018 and he’s started 45 games out of 83 appearances in MiLB since 2019, including 27 starts of 28 appearances in 2023. He throws a lot of strikes, but he doesn’t quite have the arsenal, yet. He has a solid fastball and changeup, and is developing a slider. While the Rockies believe he could be a starter eventually, director of professional scouting Sterling Monfort told the Denver Post the Rockies see him as a long reliever in 2024. Depending on how the rotation goes and how Molina does, that timetable may need to be accelerated.

Jake Bird

It’s hard to imagine taking the most-used arm in the Rockies bullpen away, but that’s also what might make Bird a good candidate. That and he was a great starting pitcher in his college days at UCLA before he transitioned to a reliever in the minors with the Rockies. Bird mostly relies on three pitches: a sinker (59.5%), curveball (20%), and cutter (14.2%). He also occasionally throws a slider (6.1%). Bird trailed only Matt Koch and Kyle Freeland in BB/9 among Rockies pitchers with at least 20 innings at 2.72. Bird started three games for the Rockies in 2023, but they were all bullpen days and no start went more than two innings. If Bard and Tyler Kinley can stay healthy, if Gilbreath can be an innings eater, and if Jalen Beeks can take on a major role, then maybe the Rockies will have more bullpen depth to allow Bird to try on being a starter.

Maybe a fairytale ending will emerge and the Rockies will realize they had the next quality starter there all along. Or at least long enough to get Márquez back.

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Rockies Mailbag: What’s the TV situation? Will Todd Helton make Hall of Fame? | Denver Post ($)

Patrick Saunders answers questions about Helton’s odds at making the Hall despite odd changes in writers’ ballots, how low the bar should be for Rockies fans’ expectations in 2024, who the closer might be, and when we’ll find out how to watch the Rockies this season.

Baseball Hall of Fame voting: Why 2024 could finally be Todd Helton’s year for enshrinement | CBSSports.com

While some ballots have been going the wrong direction when it comes to Helton votes and the Colorado legend doesn’t get a lot of national attention, it’s good to see someone advocating for the Toddfather like Matt Snyder does here.

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