This time a year ago, the debate surrounding the Colorado Rockies was whether or not their attempt to spend big money on veteran relievers was the right way to spend the offseason and if it would come back to bite them.
In the short term, at least, those who believed the latter were proven more prescient.
For most of the 2018 campaign, the bullpen failed to live up to the “superpen” moniker that some (guilty) believed it could achieve.
Newly acquired cutter-specialist Bryan Shaw struggled most mightily and most often to the tune of a 5.93 ERA, putting up by far the worst season of his career (-1.1 WAR). A re-signed Jake McGee didn’t lag too far behind in terms of disappointment (-0.8 WAR) after a remarkable 2017.
As these pitchers’ saw their struggles mount rather than regress, and with Carlos Estevez unable to back up his promising end to 2017 by missing all of 2018 because of injury, it was unclear how Colorado would ever get their ‘pen to stabilize, let alone reach its true potential.
But it did stabilize and was able to do so, in my estimation, because of four events.
The first is that Adam Ottavino became an All-Star level pitcher – voters be damned – which meant that despite the aforementioned chaos, if the Rockies could take a lead into the final two innings then they were capable of slamming the door shut behind Otto and Wade Davis, who set a new franchise record for Saves.
That paired quite nicely with the second major factor…
The starting rotation really began to click and pitch deeper into games as the season progressed. This gave Bud Black and Jeff Bridich some time to address the issue and allowed for the team to stay afloat.
That led to the last two stabilizers, whereupon which we can point to specific moments in time.
On June 27, the Rockies recalled Scott Oberg after some struggles and an injury had him stuck in Triple-A. He bounced back with a vengeance, eventually taking over late-inning roles and even securing the save in the Wild Card game in Chicago, striking out the side in the 13th. The contrast between the overall bullpen numbers before and after the moment of Oberg’s return were stark.
Then, almost a month later, Colorado swung one of the quietest deadline trades in recent memory, acquiring Seunghwan Oh from the Toronto Blue Jays for a pair of prospects. Oh pitched 21.1 mostly high-leverage innings down the stretch, posting a 2.53 ERA with a 10.13 K/9 rate and a 2.95 BB/9 rate while tallying eight holds and a save.
For the season, he pitched to a 2.63 ERA over 68.1 innings and the Rockies will have him back this season.
So, with Thursday’s news that Ottavino will be joining the New York Yankees in 2019, can Colorado absorb the loss or do they need to unlock another series of fortunate events?
Let’s take a look at best and worst case scenarios.
There is no way around the fact that the Rockies are losing their best reliever from an already reeling bullpen a year ago; the glue that arguably kept the whole thing from disintegrating like a Marvel character after a Thanos snap.
There is almost no chance the Rockies get a single season anywhere near as good as Ottavino’s 2018 which makes recreating his value in the agregate an uphill battle.
In a worst-case scenario that doesn’t feature any injuries, Oberg is unable to maintain his momentum or his few months of dominance becomes a flash in the pan and Oh reverts back to the 4.10 ERA pitcher he was his second year in St. Louis, which is why the Cardinal declined to keep him around.
Naturally, a Murphy’s Law season for the bullpen would exclude any kind of rebound for veterans Shaw, McGee, Mike Dunn, or Chris Rusin.
Furthermore, the Rox would have to roll snake eyes on a multitude of young and talented, but largely unproven, pitchers.
But perhaps the biggest way that ‘pen struggles could hurt the 2019 Rockies is if the club is forced into converting a few starters and then ends up needing those players in the rotation for a myriad of potential reasons.
Then there are any number of injury possibilities that could test and stretch the depth before it is ready to be tested or stretched.
The most devastating would be losing Wade Davis for any length of time with Oh the only other player with significant experience closing.
If this unit doesn’t come together early, there could be a kind of domino effect on the roster… but again this is a worst-case scenario.
Of course, a best-case scenario would see the inverse of everything we just talked about. The vets would bounce back to their career numbers, Oh and Oberg would slide naturally into set-up roles, and perhaps a return of 2017 Rusin, which we saw glimpses of late in 2018, would be all they need.
It’s also not unfathomable to think Davis, despite his historic season, could improve upon his 4.13 ERA.
Where all that moves from just a tolerable absorption of what they’ve lost into something far more intriguing is with a group of three young pitchers who could be in line for Oberg-like breakouts: Carlos Estevez, Yency Almonte, Harrison Musgrave.
It may have been way back in the Walt Weiss Era but Estevez has already been a stabilizing force for the Rockies bullpen once before. The 26-year-old fireballer has seen some extreme highs and lows since then. After recording 11 saves in 2016, the league began to adjust quicker than he could and he fell apart, as did the team, in a key stretch that year, falling to a 5.24 season ERA.
After getting knocked around a bit at the beginning of 2017, Estevez spent a few months in the minors working on his mechanics then stormed back to the bigs for a pivotal part of the run into the postseason, He eventually earned the trust of the notoriously stingy Bud Black, becoming the go-to guy against the likes of eventual MVP Giancarlo Stanton in some of the biggest games the club had played in a decade.
To his absolute devastation, he lost all of 2018 with injuries but he is still young enough and clearly talented enough that he could follow in Oberg’s footsteps.
While both of those players have faced trials and tribulations at the MLB level, Yency Almonte is a bit newer… but a bit more polished.
Working his way through the Rockies system as a starter, Almonte found himself locked out of a rotation job but employing an arsenal that fit well in the bullpen. So, he converted out of necessity and while his innings were limited, the early results were good.
Over 14.2 innings late in the season, he posted a 1.84 ERA while striking out 8.59/9 and walking 2.45/9. His plus changeup to go along with the fastball/slider combo and velocity that can tick up to 97 or 98 mph could make him a revelation in 2019 if he continues to progress after a compelling first taste of MLB.
Harrison Musgrave showed such poise and ability that he was taken on the postseason roster a year ago and showed well for himself. The lefty ate up 44.2 innings for Colorado with a 4.63 ERA which was impressive considering how often he was asked to pitch multiple innings against big leaguers he was seeing for the first time.
Another starter displaced by the Rockies depth in that area, Musgrave could similarly improve behind his added experience and comfortability with a new position.
In addition to all this high-ceiling potential, the Rockies have a group of high-floor options in Chad Bettis, DJ Johnson, and (possibly) Sam Howard or Justin Lawrence.
And that’s all before you consider converting another starter or think about whether or not you can get away with using Antonio Senzatela as a swing man again.
As is almost always the case, some middle-case scenario will most likely occur. But the Rockies are far from being a team with no options.
Its incredible to think that this time last year, the values of Ottavino and Shaw were the exact opposite of what they are now and that is a steadfast reminder of the ever-volatile nature of bullpens. After all, there is no guarantee that the former is better in 2019 than the latter especially considering for most of their careers it has been the other way around.
And that’s very much to the point.
The possible outcomes where the bullpen is actually better than a year ago are almost equal to those in which they are worse.
What does seem likely, though, is that they will have a less extreme season. The veterans who need to rebound will be given a chance to do so, but if they struggle again, you can combine those outcomes with the ones from 2018 and make a much easier case for a quicker hook from the roster in favor of a younger player.
The odds seem against Shaw and McGee being as bad or worse, but the odds are also against each of these players staying healthy and every one of the young guys taking a clear step forward.
As it stands, though, the Rockies have 13 bullpen arms with MLB experience and success under their belts. None of them are as good as Adam Ottavino just was.
But unless everything that can go wrong does, the extra innings from Oh and a full-season of the new Oberg combined with even the most moderate rebounds from vets and progress from youngsters will lead to a more productive bullpen overall.
And if Oh, who is the most likely to step directly into Ottavino’s spot, proves nothing else, it’s that you can always go get another one in a trade.