2015 Rockies Position Preview: Middle Relief

Rafael Betancourt is looking to return to the Rockies in 2015. Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds – Getty Images North America

Don’t forget to check out previous installments in the positional preview series! You can find them here: Catcher; First Base; Second Base; Third Base; Shortstop; Outfield; Starting Rotation

The bullpen for the Rockies was a mess in 2014. As a unit, it ranked 29th in fWAR, tied for 28th in ERA-, 27th in FIP-, and 27th in K/9. The good news is that there’s reason to believe that the bullpen should improve in 2015. In fact, it might even be an area to be optimistic about. Here’s a look at one half of the bullpen: the middle relievers.

Bullpen roles tend to be pretty fluid and can change pretty significantly over the course of a season, so saying that this group is all middle relievers does not mean that they will never pitch late in games or that their role won’t change at some point during the year. It’s simply a best estimate of their role on the team before the start of the season.

Major League Options

Rafael Betancourt

One of the most exciting things about the Rockies bullpen for 2015 is the probable return of Rafael Betancourt. Arguably the best reliever in Rockies history, his need for Tommy John surgery as a 38 year old made retirement seem likely. Instead, he chose to rehab his injury and attempt a comeback, even though most people thought that his odds of making it back to the big leagues were pretty low. The Rockies, however, allowed Betancourt to use their facilities during his rehab, despite not being officially under contract. He did end up eventually being signed by the Rockies to a minor league contract and ended up pitching 19 1/3 mostly unimpressive innings in the minors at the end of the 2014 season.

Now, six months further removed from his injury and just over a month from his 40th birthday, Betancourt is enjoying a great spring, looking like his former self, and seeming more and more likely to make the Opening Day roster. Yesterday’s move to option Tommy Kahnle to AAA (more on him below) and the release of Jhoulys Chacin (which created a place on the 40-man roster for him) opens the door even wider for Rafael to make the Rockies bullpen at the start of the season

Betancourt ranks at or near the top in every important pitching category in Rockies history. He ranks first all-time among Rockies relievers in BB/9 (1.7), K/BB (6.3), FIP (2.67), and FIP- (64). He ranks second all-time in fWAR (6.2), K/9 (10.5), ERA (3.08), and ERA- (68). Needless to say, the addition of a guy like that to the bullpen would be a huge boost. The combination of ZiPS and Steamer project him for a modest 4.72 ERA, 4.67 FIP, 7 K/9, and 3.3 BB/9 this season. I’d like to think he can do better than that, but only time will tell.

Boone Logan

After signing a 3 year, $16.5 million contract during the off-season, Boone Logan really struggled in 2014. In just 25 innings of work, Logan posted a ghastly 6.84 ERA (160 ERA-), a 5.13 FIP (130 FIP-), -0.4 fWAR, and -1 rWAR. Coming on the heels of four straight seasons with an ERA- of 89 or lower and an FIP- of 93 or lower, Logan’s struggles were really surprising and unexpected. Boone will look to improve on his poor performance, and hope to get some better luck, as we head into 2015.

In spite of his ugly numbers, there actually were signs that the now 30 year old Logan hadn’t just completely fallen off last season. He matched his career high in K/9 with 11.5, suggesting that he was still capable of getting swings and misses, and his 4 BB/9 were right in line with his career 3.9 BB/9, so he didn’t suddenly lose all of his command. What really did him in was bad luck. In 2014, he had a 66.5 LOB%, .379 BABIP against, and an unbelievable 35.3% HR/FB (percentage of fly balls that went for home runs). These numbers are all primarily based on luck and were all the worst of his career (min. 20 innings pitched). If those numbers come back to normal in 2015, Logan’s numbers should get a lot better.

ZiPS and Steamer together combine to project the left-handed Logan for a 4.02 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 9.6 K/9, and 3.6 BB/9. Those numbers, while not great, would represent a significant improvement over what the Rockies got from him last year and would make him a much more reliable left handed option out of the bullpen.

Christian Friedrich

Friedrich, along with Logan and Rex Brothers, who I’ll talk more about on Monday, is another of three left-handed relievers likely to make the Opening Day bullpen for the Rockies. After struggling as a starting pitcher for his entire career (6.61 ERA and 4.81 FIP as a starter), Friedrich seemed to find his niche as a reliever late in 2014. In 13 relief appearances that spanned 11 innings in August and September, Friedrich had a stellar 1.64 ERA, 1.59 FIP, 10.6 K/9, and 1.6 BB/9 while holding opposing hitters to a terrible slash line of .105/.175/.167. Friedrich was also great against lefties last season, with 11.4 K/9 and just 1 BB/9 to go with a slash line of .133/.194/.207. These are both very small sample sizes, but they suggest the Rockies might be onto something here with Christian.

Another advantage that Friedrich, 27, has when it comes to making the squad is that he is out of minor league options. This means that if the Rockies were to send him to the minors, they first would have to expose him to waivers, where he would almost certainly be claimed by another team. The Rockies probably don’t want to risk losing him, especially with what he showed as a reliever last year, so he is almost certain to be on the Opening Day roster.

Projections for Christian are really not even worth mentioning, as one thinks he’ll be a starter in over half of his appearances and another only projects him to pitch one inning. Both of those scenarios are highly unlikely, so I’ll just say that I think he could become the Rockies’ best left handed reliever by the end of the season. If nothing else, he should be interesting to watch in 2015.

On the Bubble

Brooks Brown

With the uncertainty over whether the Rockies will go with a seven or eight man bullpen, Brooks Brown finds himself squarely on the bubble. If they decide to go with an eight man bullpen, he’s probably in. If they decide to go with a seven man bullpen, he’s probably out.

After never really showing much as a minor leaguer, Brooks was very solid in his first Major League action as a 29 year old in 2014. In 26 innings spread across 28 appearances, Brown put together a 2.77 ERA (65 ERA-), 3.71 FIP (94 FIP-), 7.3 K/9, and 1.7 BB/9. Another asset that Brown brought to the Rockies was his ability to induce ground balls (58.4% of balls in play), something the Rockies love considering the great infield defense they have. His extremely low walk rate is also a big plus for the club.

It’s an encouraging sign that a pitcher who performed as well as Brown in 2014 isn’t even guaranteed a place in the 2015 bullpen, as it suggests that the Rockies have quite a few quality options. While it may be in question whether or not Brown makes the initial roster to open the season, he’s very likely to be with the club at some point, whether it’s due to injury or an eventual expansion from a seven to an eight man bullpen. ZiPS and Steamer combine to project Brooks for a 4.22 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 7.4 K/9, and 2.9 BB/9 in 2015. That would be a very strong performance from the team’s eighth best reliever.

Minor League Options

Tommy Kahnle

In his first Major League season, Tommy Kahnle was a bit of a bright spot for the Rockies, especially early in the season. In the first four months of the season he posted ERA’s of 1.93, 2.45, 2.87, and 3.21. His final two months were much less inspiring, with a 13.50 ERA in August, a 12.71 ERA in September, and a trip to the DL with shoulder inflammation. When you put it all together, Kahnle’s final 2014 numbers were a 4.19 ERA (102 ERA-), 4.02 FIP (98 FIP-), 8.3 K/9, and 4.1 BB/9 over 68 2/3 innings. Hopefully the late season struggles were simply because of the injury and he’s fully healthy going into 2015. That could make him a real asset if and when he’s needed in the Rockies the bullpen.

Kahnle was a Rule 5 Draft selection by the Rockies prior to the 2014 season. Control issues had prevented the 25 year old from breaking into the big leagues (5.2 BB/9 during his minor league career), but the Rockies liked his stuff enough to take a gamble on him. With a fastball that averaged 94 miles per hour, a solid change-up, and improved control, Kahnle became someone the Rockies felt like they could count on for most of the year.

Yesterday, Kahnle was optioned to AAA, meaning he will almost assuredly begin the season there. His combined projections from ZiPS and Steamer have him with a 4.42 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 8.8 K/9, and 4.7 BB/9. If the Kahnle we saw from April through July last season was the real deal, he should easily beat those projections. At the very least, he’s a great guy to be able to stash in AAA for now.

That does it for the first look at the first half of what should be a much improved Rockies bullpen in 2015. As always, feedback and comments are both welcome and appreciated and please don’t forget to subscribe, like View from the Rooftop on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and check back on Monday, March 30, for the next and final installment of the Rockies 2015 Position Preview Series: Late Inning Relief.

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