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The Colorado Rockies bullpen has already been through some major changes in the early days of the offseason. Last year’s opening day closer, Rafael Betancourt, is no longer on the team. The team also signed 40-year-old Latroy Hawkins to help fill the late inning void. However, Rockies fans cannot and should not think that the team is done improving the pen.
If you don’t think I’m right I have three reason why: the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Boston Red Sox. Only the Red Sox failed to have a reliever in last year’s summer classic, while Pittsburgh had two, and the Cards had one. The Red Sox bullpen did however manage to only give up one run in 21 innings against the best offense in baseball during their ALCS victory over the Tigers. You cannot deny the obvious impact of bullpen success in both April and October.
That being said, there are still many targets Colorado can go after to help get the bullpen to an elite level with the depth needed for a late season run.
Grant Balfour is a 35-year-old Aussie who has spent time with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and most recently Oakland. The veteran righty has a career ERA of 3.27 and has kept his season ERA under 3.00 in the last four seasons. Here is the big one: 38 saves last year on a competitive, AL west winning team. That’s right, Balfour was the closer for the best team in a division where he was threatened by the likes of Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols, and Mike Trout. The big negative for Balfour with the Rockies is his age, unless he is going to be a short term answer while Rex Brothers has another year as the setup man (as Hawkins was dubbed when he was signed this week).
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Jesse Crain is a 32-year-old right hander who has never pitched outside of the AL Central, spending the beginning of his career with Minnesota and the last three seasons with the “Chi-Sox.” Crain, an All-Star last season, does not have the postseason reputation, allowing five runs (three earned) in just 1.2 innings of work. The Canadian born Crain owns both a career ERA of 3.05 and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of any free agent pitcher this offseason: Crain played high school baseball in Boulder, CO and presumably would adjust well to pitching in Denver.
My personal favorite Rockies bullpen target is Brian Wilson. Not because of the beard or eccentricity, but because he is a former Giant and more recently a former Dodger. I am always in favor of any chance the Rockies have to possibly avenge some NL west bullying. “The Beard” was not a closer last season as a Dodger; he did however only give up just one run in 13.2 innings after returning from Tommy John surgery. The price tag would be low if not for the possibility of high payroll teams willing to take a shot on Wilson returning to his All-Star form.
Joaquin Benoit saw his fair share of troubles in a bullpen that had the flexibility of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder batting the next half inning. Luckily for whoever signs him, those troubles weren’t Benoit’s, and led to him taking over the closer role from Jose Valverde. Benoit had 24 saves and an ERA of 2.01 last season. The big downside is that Benoit is 36-years-old and would only be a short-term solution, likely on a one year contract.
Journeyman Edward Mujica is probably a highly recognizable name by most more-than-casual baseball fans. Mujica spent last season on the pennant winning Cardinals, with the majority of that time spent as the closer recording 37 saves. The 29-year-old could be easy to acquire by whoever wants him; St. Louis lost confidence in him and he only pitched in two games during the Cardinals’ playoff run. 2013 was Mujica’s only season in his eight year career in which he was the primary closer, and although he was an All-Star, he failed to keep his job when the games meant the most.
J.P. Howell is perhaps the most inconsistent of upper tier bullpen targets. Howell, who was on Magic Johnson’s payroll in L.A. last season, has had four good seasons in the last five with struggles prior to that. When the 30-year-old lefty struggles there is no doubt about it. Stay with me here, but every third year Howell’s ERA gallons to over six. If that pattern continues, nobody wants to sign him until next year. More realistically Howell is a veteran left-handed pitcher with postseason experience, no doubt an asset to a team looking to improve its’ bullpen.
Everybody remembers the Red Sox won the World Series, right? Not only was their bullpen efficient all year-long, but at the height of the playoff race Boston was still operating under a closer by committee style. St. Louis did the same during their last Championship run. As the offseason goes on, Rockies fans should hope for depth and flexibility over recognizable names.