Building The 2015 Colorado Rockies’ Bullpen

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Last year, the bullpen was among the biggest of the many holes the Colorado Rockies had. How is the bullpen going to look this season?

New General Manager Jeff Bridich has unfortunately not put much effort or many resources into improving the bullpen. But although we might see a lot of familiar names in the bullpen next season, there are some new and possibly more exciting names likely to be in the mix. What will the opening day bullpen look like?

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First, the sure things, of whom I think there are four. Now 42-year-old closer LaTroy Hawkins says this will be his last season after posting some solid numbers last season. Given the way the rest of the bullpen played last year, Hawkins’s 3.31 ERA and 23 saves look fantastic. He’s among the more hittable closers in baseball (think polar opposite of Aroldis Chapman), and his 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 134th of 142 qualified relievers. Among pitchers who recorded 20+ saves, Zach Britton had the next lowest K/9 rate at 7.31.

When you have a closer who is so hittable, disaster is always near, so I’m a bit worried about entering 2015 with Hawkins as our closer, but perhaps I am being unfair to him; he’s been good for a long time and is far from the biggest question mark in the bullpen.

Joining Hawkins in the bullpen will be Adam Ottavino, Rex Brothers, and Tommy Kahnle, each of whom have gotten to this point in very different ways but now seemingly have fairly similar futures. While none of the three is immune to bad games or high ERAs (see last season, when the three combined for a 4.41 ERA), they are the three relievers on the Rockies with the best stuff (a wild card or two aside) and the three who, along with the departed Matt Belisle, pitched more than any other Rockies reliever last year.

I’ll start with Kahnle, my personal favorite. Ever since arriving last year in the Rule 5 draft, Kahnle has shown the potential to be a good late inning reliever. He had an up-and-down season, ending up with a 4.19 ERA and 8.26 K/9 in nearly 70 innings. The key for Kahnle, of course, is his control; after posting a 2.68 ERA before the all-star break, he fell apart in the second half when he wasn’t able to locate his pitches. He ended with a subpar 4.06 BB/9, which, while not Rex Brothers bad, needs to come down if he hopes to be a consistently above-average late inning reliever.

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Although he finished with a higher ERA than some, Adam Ottavino was without a doubt the best reliever for the Rockies throughout the year. Among relievers who pitched more than Christian Friedrich‘s 11 innings, no Rockies reliever had a lower FIP (fielding independent pitching) than Ottavino’s 3.10. He started the season with 13 consecutive scoreless appearances and aside from one terrible month (June) had a sub-3.10 ERA in every month.

Looking ahead, Ottavino’s slider will likely continue to make him the best reliever on the team. Just as importantly, he’s throwing in the high 90s and had great control last season. More than anyone else, I’m confident that Ottavino will be the best reliever- and possible closer- on the Rockies.

And then there’s Rex Brothers. I’m not going to write much about Brothers, because he’s a pure mystery to me. In 2013, Brothers had a 1.74 ERA and 19 saves while striking out 76 guys in 67.1 innings. He often got himself into trouble with bad control, but usually pitched himself out of it. I don’t know if all that luck just turned against him last year, but his ERA ballooned to 5.59 and his WHIP to 1.85. For the first time, he struck out less than a batter per inning and gave up more than a hit in every frame. His already-high walk rate increased to 6.23 BB/9, dead last among qualified relievers.

Brothers clearly still has the stuff to pitch to the future closer label he was tagged with, but can he regain some semblance of control and get the timely pitching (or luck) that enabled him to leave 89% of runners on base in 2013? Or is he more like the pitcher who allowed 29% of the many baserunners against him to score? Brothers is one of the more fascinating Rockies to watch in 2015.

After those four, things get murky. A good bet to make the bullpen is Jairo Diaz, who was acquired in the Josh Rutledge trade. Although he started last season in A ball for the AL West champion Angels, he ended up pitching for the Angels in September. Here’s the abridged scouting report: he throws super hard with a pretty good slider. He posted an 11.8 K/9 and a 2.88 BB/9 across two minor league levels last season.

Sounds like someone else we know, right? But seriously, Diaz is kind of like Adam Ottavino in that he had some struggles in the minors before developing his secondary pitches and now, hopefully, figuring it out at the MLB level. He’s the wild card I alluded to before, and while he might start the year in AAA, he’ll have every opportunity to work himself into the conversation for a high-leverage role.

One thing this bullpen still needs is someone who can come in and shut down lefties. Brothers is a lefty, but he isn’t someone who is a lot better against left handers than he is against righties; in fact, last year, he allowed a .908 OPS against lefties and a .761 OPS against righties. So this bullpen needs another lefty.

That means we’re likely to see (gulp) Boone Logan again, if only because the Rockies gave him a big contract before last season. Logan was awful last year, although to be fair he was oft-injured. Coming off a 25 inning, 6.84 ERA season, though, he will probably have a quick hook. Behind him could be Christian Friedrich, who was terrible in three starts (14 earned runs in 13.1 innings) but terrific as a reliever (two earned runs in 11 innings).

It’s a small sample size, but maybe Friedrich’s stuff plays better as a reliever. The former first-round pick was called up as a starter out of necessity and then converted to the bullpen. Unlike Brothers and Logan, he was terrific against lefties, who hit just .138 with one extra base hit against him with one walk against and a .400 OPS. If Logan fails again, look for Friedrich to get a quick promotion.

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So we have Ottavino, Brothers, Kahnle, Hawkins, Diaz, and a LOOGY. That leaves one or two relievers. To be honest, the back of the bullpen is a crapshoot for most teams, let alone the Rockies. I expect Jorge Rondon, who was claimed off waivers from the Cardinals, to earn a job, if only because he has posted back-to-back good seasons in AAA and will be 27 years old when the season starts. Other options could be (very) under the radar signees Jose Ortega (15.1 career major league innings) and Justin Miller (1.81 ERA in AAA last season).

In the end, though, I think Brooks Brown will have a chance to prove his surprisingly good season last year was no fluke. After being stuck in AAA for three years and posting ERAs between 4 and 5 for three different teams in those three years, Brown cracked the big leagues last season and threw 26 innings for the Rockies.

The difference between his AAA form and his big league form was good luck (78% left on base in MLB, 65% in AAA) and, more encouragingly, good command. He walked just 1.73 batters per nine innings after consistently being in the three per nine range in the minors. Can he keep it up? I’m skeptical, but he will surely get the chance to prove that he can.

To recap, I think the Rockies will open camp with eight relievers: Hawkins, Kahnle, Ottavino, Brothers, Diaz, Logan, Rondon, and Brown. The back of the bullpen could be a revolving door, though, as the Rockies have a bunch of similar options in AAA that they’ll be eager to call up if Logan, Rondon, or Brown stumbles.

It’s not necessarily an experienced or good bullpen, but it’s one with potential. I can envision a universe in which Brothers bounces back, Ottavino and Kahnle take the next step, and Diaz shows he can be the future closer.

Of course, I can also envision a universe in which Brothers regresses further, the development of Ottavino and Kahnle stagnates, and the back of the rotation is just as disastrous as it looks like it might be. Let’s just hope for the former.

Next: Are the Rockies Getting Left Behind?

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