Rockies’ end-of-season bullpen analysis: Lots of holes to fill, including at closer

Editor’s note: Second of a series looking ahead to the Rockies of 2022. Today: relief pitching.

When new Rockies general manager Bill Schmidt studies his offseason to-do list, fixing the bullpen sits on the top line. In bold letters.

Consider: The Rockies have been to the playoffs five times in 29 years, and in those five seasons, the average bullpen ERA was 4.40. In 2007, the one time the Rockies advanced to the World Series, the ERA was 3.85.

Consider: The 2021 Rockies’ bullpen had a 4.91 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and .250 batting average against. They ranked 26th in the majors in each of those categories.

Digging a little deeper, Colorado relievers converted only 33 saves in 63 opportunities, a 52% save rate that was the sixth-lowest in baseball.

Losing right-handed closer Scott Oberg to a recurrence of blood clots in his arm during spring training was a huge blow. Though Oberg remains with the team as an advisor, it’s doubtful he’ll ever pitch again.

All of the above screams for a bullpen makeover, beginning with the search for a dependable closer. Landing one via free agency won’t be easy. Kenley Jansen (Dodgers), Craig Kimbrel (White Sox $16 million club option), Raisel Iglesias (Angels), Trevor Rosenthal (Athletics) and Brad Hand (Mets) lead the list, but it would be a surprise if any of those pitchers end up in Colorado.

Following is a breakdown and grades for the performance of each of the Rockies’ relievers, with a forecast for their 2022 season:

Late-inning options

RHP Carlos Estevez (3-5, 4.38 ERA, 61 2/3 innings)

Estevez, a power pitcher with a 97-100 mph fastball, a sharp slider and an effective changeup, got his chance to be the closer. The results were decidedly mixed and he did not nail down the job for 2022. Estevez recorded 11 saves but also blew six opportunities. His walk rate (3.06 per nine innings) was decent, but his WHIP (1.49) and opponents’ batting average (.293) was too high. Grade: C

RHP Daniel Bard (7-8, 5.21 ERA, 65 2/3 innings)

Bard’s feel-good comeback story hit a rough chapter. He lost his job as the closer because he issued too many walks (4.93 per nine) and he ended up blowing eight saves in 28 chances. There’s no doubt Bard can wipe out hitters (10.96 strikeouts per nine) but until he harnesses his firepower, it will be difficult to trust him. Grade: D

RHP Tyler Kinley (3-2, 4.73, 70 1/3 innings)

A case can be made that Kinley, who led Rockies relievers in innings pitched, was Colorado’s best reliever. He finished strong, holding opponents scoreless in 22 of his last 25 outings with a 1.50 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. He did give up 12 homers over the course of the season, but he could evolve into a quality set-up man. Grade: B-minus

LHP Lucas Gilbreath (3-2, 3.24 ERA, 41 2/3 innings)

The left-hander from Legacy High School was one of the surprises of 2021. After being recalled June 5, he was unscored upon in 31 of 37 games, posting a 2.16 ERA while limiting opponents to a .168 average. He has a chance to be more than just a lefty specialist in the seventh or eighth innings. Grade: B

RHP Jhoulys Chacin (3-2, 4.33 ERA, 60 1/3 innings)

The veteran had his share of hiccups, especially early on. But Chacin rebounded and emerged as a dependable option, first as a long man and later as a set-up reliever. Chacin, who turns 34 in January, is a free agent but there is a good chance the Rockies will bring him back as a seventh-inning reliever. Grade: B-minus

RHP Robert Stephenson (2-1, 3.13 ERA, 46 innings)

Injuries limited Stephenson’s season but his 2.89 strikeout/walk ratio was the best among the relievers and he impressed toward the end of the season, holding opponents scoreless in 13 of his last 15 appearances. He will get a chance to see late-game action next year. Grade: B

RHP Jordan Sheffield (0-0, 3.38 ERA, 29 1/3 innings)

The right-hander missed much of the season because of a right lat injury but pitched well when he returned late in the season. Acquired from the Dodgers in the 2020 Rule 5 draft, he has upside, but he remains untested. Grade: Incomplete

Innings eaters

RHP Ashton Goudeau (2-1, 4.84, 22 1/3 innings)

The well-traveled 29-year-old got a chance to show his stuff as a long reliever at the end of the season, pitching two or more innings in nine of his 14 appearances. His high ERA is concerning but he posted an 0.94 WHIP and held opponents to a .197 average. The jury is still out. Grade: C-minus

RHP Chi Chi Gonzalez (3-7, 6.46 ERA, 101 2/3 innings)

Gonzalez pitched in 24 games (18 starts, six relief appearances) but the Rockies designated him for assignment toward the end of the season. He might return to Colorado, but not as a starter. Opponents hit him hard (.311 average). Grade: D

In limbo

RHP Yency Almonte (1-3, 7.55, 47 2/3 innings)
LHP Ben Bowden (3-2, 6.56, 35 2/3 innings)
RHP Justin Lawrence (1-0, 8.64, 16 2/3 innings)
RHP Julian Fernandez (0-0, 10.80, 6 2/3 innings)
RHP Antonio Santos (0-1, 4.76, 11 1/3 innings)

Almonte, so good in 2020, struggled mightily in 2021 and his future in Colorado is in doubt. The same goes for Bowden, whose 5.30 walks per nine were a red flag. Lawrence, Fernandez and Santos will all get a hard look during spring training.

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