Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Can't Anybody Here Pitch a Shutout Inning?
2007-05-16 14:11
by Mark T.R. Donohue

OK, my annual spring period of petulance is over. Every year when it becomes clear that the Rockies are once again going to be a competitive nonentity in the NL West, I get grumpy for a few days, stop watching their games, bad-mouth them to anyone who will listen, and start posting terse, defeatist blog posts. Nobody enjoys my yearly crisis of faith, let alone me, so let's all be glad it's over. What can we say that's constructive about Clint Hurdle's latest group of complacent, fundamental-botching .400-teers? It will take a few more days of recovery before I am prepared to discuss the disappointing subjects of the lineup and the starting pitching. However, this is a Rockies site, so writing about a bad bullpen is practically reflexive to us at this point. It's the perfect way to get back on the horse.

As much as it pained me to do so, I took a look at the stat lines for every pitcher who's attempted to relieve for Colorado this year. Maybe with a better idea of who's wandering around out there and whether they belong in the majors in the first place we might be able to enter next season with a bullpen worthy of the name. The Rockies' troubles sadly extend beyond mere bad relief pitching, but it's oddly both their most fixable and their most persistent issue. I had two major questions in mind as I began this little survey. First of all, is Dan O'Dowd's strategy the last few seasons of adding a handful of relatively discounted veterans to bridge the gap between Brian Fuentes and a bunch of prospects at all a workable one? Second, could the Rockies trade Fuentes this season, as I have already suggested they should, without leaving themselves so vulnerable that they'll be bad enough for the rest of 2007 to cause lasting damage going into '08?

Manny Corpas The staff leader in every significant category including innings pitched, Corpas has been a top prospect for a while. Unlike a lot of blue-chip pitchers, he's pretty much always been earmarked for relief work; a year as a starter in low-A was a wash. Corpas supports good heat with a plus slider and a usable changeup. Corpas has "future closer" written all over him, and the future could come as soon as midseason if Fuentes gets moved. For now, Hurdle should give Corpas even more exposure in the late innings, but watch his inning totals closely. At his current pace, Manny will be making far more appearances and clocking way more total innings than you necessarily want to see for a reliever in his first major-league season.

Brian Fuentes Your closer until further notice, the lefty with the jumpy, clawlike sidearm motion has proven himself one of Colorado's most valuable pitching assets over the last two seasons. His nine saves so far in 2007 are all the more impressive when you consider that the Rockies only have sixteen wins total. Fuentes has shown a bit of a propensity for giving up the long ball this year but his WHIP is outrageous (0.72) and his strikeout rate should rally. They'd miss him tremendously if traded but on a contending team that might not use him as a closer and scale back his appearances facing righthanders, Fuentes would be a huge star.

Jeremy Affeldt Acquired by the Rockies for Ryan Shealy around the deadline last year, Affeldt was a failed starter for Kansas City but has shown flashes as a matchup lefty for Colorado. Affeldt's claim to fame coming up was his curveball, and we always worry about guys with hooks pitching in the thin air. Jeremy has had some success adapting his curve into more of a pitch that hitters will make contact with and get themselves out than a swing-and-miss offering. Still, a strikeout rate of less than 5 per 9 doesn't bode well for a late-inning reliever. The Rockies don't yet consider him a LOOGY (two-thirds of the batters Affeldt has faced on the season have been righties), but he does have some of the indicators. He's too young and the Rockies' record too irrelevant for him not to keep pitching full innings for at least this season.

Zach McClellan The prospect books ignore him because of his age, but since making his major league debut April 16th the tall righty has done enough to impress Clint Hurdle to become one of his workhorses. Perhaps it's because McClellan is one of the few relievers the Rockies have who can strike guys out (8.36 K/9). When he hasn't struck guys out he's given up a lot of hits, but it's hard to separate luck from skill over such a small sample size. He's one of the few examples in favor of O'Dowd's see-what-sticks approach to bullpen management.

LaTroy Hawkins O'Dowd's single most useless signing of last offseason, Hawkins was acquired to be the principle setup man and racked up an 8.59 ERA and numerous painfully memorable blown saves before going on the disabled list April 24th. Frankly, I don't think most Rockies fans would be at all heartbroken if he never came back. I doubt we'll be that lucky, but Hurdle surely has learned his lesson when it comes to using Hawkins in the eighth inning of close games. Corpas should take the setup role, but Colorado is paying Hawkins too much for him to sit. He'll get numerous second-half opportunities to give the Rockies' opponents bigger leads.

Taylor Buchholz The Rockies never really envisioned Buchholz as a reliever, but mismanagement in the offseason forced them to carry him as such coming out of spring training. Since Buchholz was out of minor league options, the Rockies had to find a place for him on the major league roster to see what they had after acquiring him in the Jason Jennings trade. However they had already guaranteed rotation spots to Josh Fogg and Rodrigo Lopez. It's anyone's guess whether this flip-flopping sabotaged Taylor's mental well-being, but in any event he hasn't been very useful in either a starting or relief role. Further mismanagement of the Brian Lawrence situation and Lopez's slow return from injury guarantees Buchholz will have a few more opportunities to turn it around as a starter. He was hurt all last year, and he was once a highly-regarded prospect in the Astros system, so he could show us something still.

Alberto Arias Part of the second wave of relief reinforcements from Colorado Springs, Arias didn't particularly distinguish himself in six May appearances. The Rockies have lost the last four games in which he's pitched. He's five years younger than McClellan but the prospect books consider him an organizational guy. He returns to the minors after the Jorge Julio trade.

Tom Martin The presence of Jeremy Affeldt makes me curious as to why the Rockies brought the 36-year-old Martin back for another season. He was deeply average last year. He's left-handed and that's pretty much all he has going for him. If he were able to stay healthy, he's probably worth the veterans' minimum, but he's making more than that and he's already made one appearance on the disabled list. You don't want to have an entire bullpen full of inexperienced players, but you don't want to carry useless generic replacement pitchers just for that reason either. This year all Martin will be good for is soaking up innings that might be better distributed to guys like Arias.

Denny Bautista Another Royals reclamation project, Bautista is an exciting guy to watch because he throws hard and always seems to be giving a maximum effort, but he got absolutely blasted his two weeks with the Rockies (19.06 ERA). The Julio trade and Ramon Ramirez's return to health combined to send him back to the minors. I highly doubt that after all of the chances Bautista has had that he's finally going to find his way in the Colorado system. He's not going to be a contributor to a bullpen on a genuinely competitive Rockies team.

Ramon Ramirez Last year's pleasant surprise, the Rockies got Ramirez from the Yankees for Shawn Chacon. If you're looking for a sign of hope amid all of this murk, Ramirez just came off the disabled list today and might pitch in the game against Arizona tonight. Not a bad weapon to be getting back, since he hasn't allowed an earned run all year. He, Corpas, and Fuentes make for a pretty potent back three, assuming Clint Hurdle is ever inclined to actually use them that way. Realistically a guy with Ramirez's experience level ought to be pitching intelligently spaced multi-inning stints in low-leverage situations, but the Rockies need him too much for that. Here's hoping he stays healthy.

Bobby Keppel Got called up when Ramirez went down, gave up five runs in four innings, then gave way for Arias. He pitched in Kansas City last year, too. Honestly, what is it with the Rockies and former Royals pitchers? It must be one of those things with no explanation, like the Broncos' fascination with former Cleveland defensive linemen. But if you're Colorado, is there a single team in all of the major leagues with less of a success record when it comes to developing pitchers? Sure, the Royals. It's a tiny moral victory that we have one worse-off team to point to, but what exactly is our motivation to pick up all of their castoffs?

Byung-Hyun Kim If the Rockies weren't any good last season, at least they seemed like an organization where the players were happy (or as happy as you can be while playing losing ball every year) and management and coaching were on the same page. One of the most disturbing things about Clint Hurdle and Dan O'Dowd's extensions is that the harmony seems to be breaking up. Take O'Dowd's treatment of Kim. Kim pitched bravely, if not always particularly well, for Colorado all last year. He was arguably better than Josh Fogg, yet Fogg was immediately invited back and guaranteed a spot in the rotation while Kim's contract negotiations went on forever and then the Rockies sprang the news on him that they wanted him to become a reliever once again. And not even because they particularly thought that was the role to which Kim was best suited, but because they figured that was the way to maximize his value in trade. Kim pouted, everybody bad-mouthed everybody else to the local press, and finally BK got sent to Florida in exchange for Jorge Julio and his 12.54 ERA. It seems like the better thing for all involved parties might have just been to tell Kim and his agent politely in November that he wouldn't be wanted back.

Matt Herges It just wouldn't be spring training in Tucson without some random last-chancing veteran relievers. Herges must be more tenacious than most, because he accepted an assignment to Colorado Springs and waited for his chance in Denver. He got it, he blew it, he's been designated for assignment.

Ryan Speier A frequent passenger on the Colorado Springs-to-Denver shuttle the last few seasons, Speier has seemingly never fully recovered from being the main culprit in a shockingly bad all-kid bullpen to the Rockies tried to get by with early in the 2005 season. He always pitches well enough in the minors to get another look, but he's running out of chances. His three appearances in April before going right back down again were not encouraging -- two and a third innings, four earned runs.

Josh Fogg He's on the list because he pitched two innings of garbage-time relief in an 8-0 blowout loss to San Francisco in mid-April. I'm glad he did, because it gives me a chance to point out that the proper role for a limited guy like Fogg would be mop-up work and emergency starts. He's only made one relief appearance all year because he's made seven starts. The Rockies' record in those starts? 2-5.

So what about my questions? It's hard to say whether Dan O'Dowd's strategy is fatally flawed or not since the injury bug has kept his first-choice bullpen from ever properly assembling. If Hurdle had had Ramirez healthy the last few weeks, Colorado's record might be better. Then again, if LaTroy Hawkins had been able to pitch, their record might be significantly worse. Judging O'Dowd on guys like Arias, Keppel, Bautista, and McClellan isn't entirely fair. None were supposed to be major contributors this early on. But you can certainly criticize O'Dowd for not providing enough depth, and for placing way too much confidence in the abilities and resilience of Hawkins. As for Hurdle, putting guys in the situations where they're most likely to succeed isn't his strong suit. He tends to ride the hot hand until it blows up in his face. This does mean his young charges are more or less responsible for themselves, and Corpas and Ramirez have certainly responded to the challenge. Guys like Affeldt and Speier could probably benefit from stronger leadership.

Then the biggie. Could Colorado trade Brian Fuentes and survive? A lot depends on what we will see from Ramirez, Corpas, Julio, and Hawkins in the next few weeks. Knowing Hurdle, he would much sooner replace his closer with a veteran type. If Fuentes did go, Hawkins or Julio would get the first crack at replacing him, not that either would be in the least a satisfactory substitute. Hurdle's first instincts are usually wrong, but he's not so stubborn that he can't correct his mistakes. Eventually one of the young guys would get a look, and the statistics suggest they'd be more likely to thrive than the old dudes. But there's no denying it, the Rockies are a team with bullpen problems. Even with all of the players returning from injuries, they couldn't weather the loss of their best relief pitcher (maybe their best pitcher overall) without taking a hit in the win column.

You know what? I don't think it matters. The Rockies have too many holes elsewhere to pass up the chance to get two or maybe even three guys who could contribute down the line in exchange for Brian Fuentes. This year is going to be a disappointment if the team loses more games than they did last year. Would it be way more of a disappointment if they only won 70 instead of 75? I don't think so, and having more weapons to push them above .500 in 2008 would be worth it.

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