2015 Rockies Position Preview: Late Inning Relief

LaTroy Hawkins enters his 21st – and final – Major League season as the Rockies closer. Photo Credit: Dustin Bradford – 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; Middle Relief

Picking up where we left off last Thursday with the middle relief options, today we’ll take a look at the late inning relief for the Rockies. There are certainly some interesting options here, and in theory they should be able to do a solid job.

Just like with the middle relief, these bullpen roles tend to be pretty fluid and can change quite a bit over the course of the season. If someone is listed here as a late inning reliever, that does not mean that they will never pitch earlier in the game or that their role won’t change at some point during the year. This is simply my best estimate of their roles as we begin the season.

The Closer

LaTroy Hawkins

LaTroy Hawkins enters the season as the Rockies closer. Hawkins, the oldest active player in the Major Leagues at 42, made his big league debut on April 29, 1995 (!!) and announced last December that he plans to retire at the end of the 2015 season. One of just 16 pitchers in Major League history to make 1,000 or more appearances (as of right now he has exactly 1,000), LaTroy will look to continue to be a reliable reliever for the Rockies in his final year.

At age 42, a retirement announcement is hardly a surprise, but Hawkins hanging up the cleats certainly doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of effectiveness. In 2014, he had a 3.31 ERA (77 ERA-), 3.39 FIP (86 FIP-), 5.3 K/9, and just 2.2 BB/9. Typically, a telltale sign that a pitcher is going to start becoming less effective is a drop in velocity, but that hasn’t happened with Hawkins either. His average fastball velocity last year was 93.1 miles per hour, exactly the same as his career average. Aside from the obvious aging factor, there is nothing else in Hawkins’ numbers that suggest he’ll stop being effective this season.

Projection systems don’t foresee a big drop off in LaTroy’s numbers this year, either. ZiPS and Steamer combined project him for a 3.99 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 6.4 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9, a slight decline but not very significant. As long as Hawkins remains effective and the Rockies remain competitive, he should continue to close games. However, if the Rockies fall out of contention, I would imagine the club will want to give some other pitchers a chance to close games to try to find a solution there for the 2016 season. In that scenario, it’s also possible that the Rockies will look to trade Hawkins to a contender and give him a chance to end his career with a World Series ring. Whatever happens, make sure to enjoy watching one of the longest lasting pitchers the league has ever seen.

The Set-Up Men

Adam Ottavino

If the Rockies do decide to look for another closer at some point this season, the most logical first choice for them is Adam Ottavino. Coming off a very strong season in which he posted a 3.60 ERA (84 ERA-) and career bests in FIP at 3.10 (78 FIP-), K/9 at 9.7, and BB/9 at 2.2, Ottavino enters the 2015 season expected to be the primary eighth inning guy for the Rockies.

Ottavino has a great slider, actually three different sliders, that he throws almost as often as his fastball (52% of his pitches in 2014 were fastballs, 47.2% were sliders). This used to be, I presume, because Adam didn’t have a very good fastball and he wanted to take advantage of his best pitch as much as possible.  However, the good news for Ottavino (and bad news for the hitters that face him) is that his fastball was much improved in 2014. It still wasn’t great, but it had the best velocity of Adam’s career at 94.3 MPH and went from being 6.7 runs below average in 2013 to just 0.8 runs below average in 2014. If he can continue that pattern of growth on his fastball in 2015 and pair it with his already well above average slider, we could see a pitcher in 2015 who is even better than the already good pitcher we saw in 2013 and 2014.

ZiPS and Steamer combine to project Ottavino for an identical 3.60 ERA in 2015 to go with a 3.46 FIP, 9.4 K/9, and 3.1 BB/9. Projection systems tend to lean toward being conservative, so seeing him beat these numbers would not be surprising at all. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if we see Ottavino get a shot at some saves this season.

John Axford

After being signed to a minor league contract and eventually added to the Major League roster, John Axford should see some late inning work for the Rockies. After back to back outstanding years in 2010 and 2011 in which he posted a 55 ERA- and 57 FIP- across 131 2/3 innings, John has come back to earth in the past three seasons. In 189 innings since 2012, Axford has a much more pedestrian 109 ERA- and 110 FIP-. Obviously, the Rockies are hoping he’ll be able to recapture whatever it was that made him so successful back in 2010 and 2011.

The things that the Rockies probably liked about Axford are his velocity (his fastball averaged 94.4 MPH last season and has averaged 95.3 MPH in his career), his high strikeout rate (10.4 K/9 in 2014 and 10.8 K/9 in his career), and his high ground ball rate (53.6% of balls in play were ground balls in 2014, 48% in his career). Things that aren’t so attractive about him are his high HR/FB% (percentage of fly balls that end up home runs) at 19.2% in 2012, 17.2% in 2013, and 13.3% in 2014, the decline in fastball velocity that he’s seen each of the past two seasons from 96.1 MPH in 2012 to 95.3 MPH in 2013 to 94.4 MPH in 2014, and his lack of command with a career 4.4 BB/9 and a career worst 5.9 BB/9 in 2014. If the good can largely outweigh the bad, the Rockies may have a steal in Axford. If not, they may be stuck with a reliever that has little to no use for them.

Projection systems think that Axford will be extremely average this season. The combination of ZiPS and Steamer are projecting him for a 4.25 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 9.3 K/9, and 4.4 BB/9. This pretty much splits the difference between Axford’s best and worst case scenarios, which is largely what projections systems intend to do. If these are indeed close to the numbers John puts up in 2015, he won’t be great, but he won’t do any major damage either.

On the Bubble

Rex Brothers

Rex Brothers is an interesting case for the Rockies. After a dominant 2013 season that saw Brothers post a 1.74 ERA (40 ERA-), 3.36 FIP (83 FIP-), and 10.2 K/9, many thought that he was poised to become the closer of the future for the Rockies. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

In a disastrous 2014, Rex had the worst season of his career with a 5.59 ERA (131 ERA-), 4.98 FIP (126 FIP-), a career low 8.8 K/9, and a career high 6.2 BB/9. His fastball went from 4.9 runs above average in 2013 to 12 runs below average in 2014. His slider suffered a similar fate, going from 6.2 runs above average in 2013 to 0.2 runs below average in 2014. He also allowed line drives on 30% of the balls put in play against him, the highest percentage among the 330 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2014. Needless to say, Brothers is looking to have a better season in 2015.

After four strong outings to begin the spring, the last two for Brothers have been very rough, raising his spring training ERA to 9.45 in 6 2/3 innings of work. I, for one, think that spring training stats are almost completely meaningless, but these two outings have certainly stirred up a bit of a frenzy among Rockies fans. I would be surprised to see him start the season in AAA, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility with two other lefties (Boone Logan and Christian Friedrich) already essentially locks to make the roster. 2015 is likely a make or break year for Brothers. Will he become the late inning stopper so many people envisioned when he first came up, or will he continue to be the guy with a hittable fastball and very little command we saw in 2014? Regardless of which it is, Rex Brothers will have a significant impact on the success, or lack thereof, in the bullpen.

Minor League Options

Jairo Diaz

Jairo Diaz could be a very interesting late inning arm for the Rockies somewhere down the line. Acquired during the off-season in a trade for Josh Rutledge, Diaz is a flamethrower who was phenomenal in the first AA action of his career in 2014, putting together a 2.20 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 13.2 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 in 32 2/3 innings of work. He also got a cup of coffee with the Angels last September and looked very solid, putting up a 3.18 ERA, 1.90 FIP, and 12.7 K/9 in just 5 2/3 innings. Jairo is a prototypical late inning reliever, possessing a fastball in the upper 90’s (it has been clocked as high as 103 MPH), a slider, and an occasional change-up. Diaz is on the 40-man roster and would be an interesting guy to see with the Rockies if he’s able to have some early season success in the minors.

That does it for the late inning relievers, as well as the 2015 Rockies positional preview series. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. As always, comments and feedback are welcome, be sure to like View from the Rooftop on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and check back on Thursday, April 2 for my bold predictions going into the 2015 season. We are just a week away from Opening Day.


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