April 6, 2007
Relief in the Mountains
One personal note before I get into the column: Sandy, your e-mail did not include your e-mail address. Please re-send.
When I slotted the Rockies at #24 in my preseason Top 30, it was in part because I'm not that confident in their bullpen. Since then, I've had a back-and-forth with a Rockies staffer over that assessment, and figured it was worth going into greater depth about the matter in a column. I had actually intended to write about the Rockies last month, but Tracy Ringolsby's Hope and Faith piece broke down the team so well that I hesitated to follow it.
The Rockies broke camp with 12 pitchers, including seven relievers. If any team can justify this, it's the Rockies, but I still cringe whenever I see this alignment. It is, however, becoming more common, and may be the norm within another year. As with all things baseball, the pendulum will eventually shift back, but I'm not sure when it will happen.
Clint Hurdle runs a closercentric bullpen, with one-inning save chances funneled to Brian Fuentes. The sidearming lefty has been the Rockies' closer since the start of 2005, emerging from a crowded pool that spring to win the job, making him the rare lefty, and even more rare sidearmer, in the role. Fuentes' success-61 saves and an ERA of 3.16 in two seasons-is due to his being fairly successful against right-handed batters (OPSs of 750 in 2005 and 681 in 2006) a high strikeout rate (164 in 139 2/3 innings) that keeps the ball out of play. With his delivery, he could probably branch out from this role, but there's little chance of that happening in Denver.
While the ninth inning is set, the slots in front of Fuentes may be in flux for a while. The Rockies have high hopes for the hard-throwing duo of Manny Corpas and Ramon Ramirez, both of whom pitched out of the pen last season with good results, although Ramirez struggled down the stretch. Right now, Corpas is ahead of him in the pecking order, having pitched the seventh inning twice, once with a one-run lead and once in a tie game. Ramirez has been used down two in the ninth and in a tied game in the tenth. As noted in Baseball Prospectus 2007, Ramirez had some success in longer outings last last year, so he may be better utilized in long relief. Corpas, with his hard-on-righties delivery and lankier build, is best-suited for setup work.
Corpas may eventually move into the eighth inning role, especially if LaTroy Hawkins has more outings like he did Monday. The veteran allowed three hits and a walk in losing the Opening Day tilt. While Hawkins' durability is valuable for a team that needs to rely heavily on its bullpen, he's lost a lot of his effectiveness over the past few seasons. After a three-year peak with the Twins and Cubs in which his K/BB topped 4:1 each year, he's seen that marker fall below 2:1 the past two seasons, and he whiffed just 27 men in 60 1/3 innings last year. Pitching to contact hasn't generally been a good idea for Rockies' pitchers, although it's an open question as to what impact the humidor will have on that idea in 2007. Regardless, using Hawkins in lower-leverage roles is a safe play, whether that means swapping him and Corpas in the seventh and eighth innings, or going so far as to use him in what is currently Ramirez's role-The Guy Who Pitches When the Rockies Are Losing But Not by Enough to Give Up.
If you looked at the boxscore from Wednesday's Rockies/Diamondbacks game and thought Clint Hurdle was overmanaging, you weren't the only one. With an 11-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeremy Affeldt came in, retired one batter and left, with Taylor Buchholz closing things out. As it happens, Affeldt had tweaked both of his ankles while warming up, and needed to exit the game due to the injuries, rather than a tactical decision. Affeldt is the lone tactical lefty on the staff, and as such, is fairly important to the Rockies in a division that is loaded with left-handed bats. He needs to be better than he was last season-a 4.94 ERA and a 30/26 K/BB out of the bullpen-or run the risk of losing his job to Tom Martin once Martin's groin injury heals.
Buchholz and Byung-Hyun Kim round out the staff. Each has pitched once, neither effectively, although Kim was used in the high-leverage situation of a tied game in the 11th. He seems to be ahead of Buchholz, with the latter serving as a 12th man. The two seem redundant, here not because they have clear roles but because neither beat out Josh Fogg or Jason Hirsh for a rotation slot. Kim has more success on his track record, and as a sidearmer-the Rockies have three-would seem a good choice for long work. On the other hand, he has a large platoon split, making him a dangerous choice for multiple-inning outings in close games.
Is this a good bullpen? I think the back end is something that can be an asset, with Fuentes closing-I'd like him more stretched out, but that's a lost cause-and Affeldt (or Martin) and Corpas sharing setup duties. I'd prefer Ramon Ramirez as the first bridge pitcher from the starters to the setup tandem, with LaTroy Hawkins second choice. Kim should be the long man and Buchholz replaced by an extra infielder. Omar Quintanilla has been a disappointment, but he can play shortstop and serve as an early-inning pinch-hitter from the left side, more or less comparable to Ramon Vazquez or D'Angelo Jimenez.
You know, when I put it that way, a 12th pitcher doesn't sound so bad. Nevertheless, I think the Rockies would get more from that player than from a third right-handed long reliever. I could see an argument, when Martin gets healthy, for lopping off Buchholz and keeping Affeldt as the 12th man in the long role. At least then you're not carrying five right-handed relievers, three of whom do more or less the same job.
There are enough assets here that this bullpen can't be considered a detriment to the Rockies. It's not deep, but Fuentes, Corpas and Ramirez can be the core of an effective relief staff, and that's more than some teams have. Eventually, veterans of dubious merit such as Affeldt, Martin, Hawkins and Kim will yield to live arms in the system, and the Rockies will have a chance for their best pen since the days of Steve Reed and Bruce Ruffin.