Weiss not locking anyone into bullpen roles
Manager knows that versatility is key to successful relief corps
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies look as if they'll have a solid and versatile bullpen, judging by the accomplishments of some relievers and the potential of others. If anyone can say the group will be a strength, it's right-hander LaTroy Hawkins.
The 2014 season will be the 20th in the Majors for Hawkins, 41. The 2007 Rockies club that went to the World Series is one of the 10 teams that have employed him. Only 19 pitchers in the history of the game have made more appearances.
The free-agent signings of Hawkins and lefty Boone Logan, the durability of righties Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez, and the growth of younger pitchers such as lefty Rex Brothers and righty Adam Ottavino give the Rockies many options. There are other relievers who could have an impact, based on experience or youthful talent. But even taking all this into account, Hawkins has been around long enough to know that he doesn't know what will happen.
"You just never know," Hawkins said. "We just have to go out there and pitch and at the end of the year we'll know if we had a good bullpen, a decent bullpen or a bullpen that was a soft spot when [chief baseball officer] Dan O'Dowd and [senior vice president of Major League operations] Bill Geivett were putting this team together."
For now, the plan seems solid. If the Rockies carry seven relievers, just one spot is up in the air -- and even that isn't available if lefty Franklin Morales, who has pitched capably out of the bullpens of the Rockies and Red Sox, doesn't end up in the starting rotation.
If the Rockies go with eight relievers, as often is the case, experienced candidates are onetime Rockies closer Manny Corpas and former Reds setup man Nick Masset; less-experienced options are righties Rob Scahill and Chad Bettis, who learned under fire last year. Speaking of fire, it comes from the right arm of Tommy Kahnle, who was taken from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft. Down the road a bit, the Rockies have 2009 top Draft pick Tyler Matzek, a left-hander who quickly took to bullpen pitching during the 2013 Arizona Fall League season.
For a club with a small- to-mid-market payroll, that's a decent amount of talent and depth on the roster. But even manager Walt Weiss isn't blindly expecting what's on paper to stay that way all season. That's why Weiss isn't yet hammering out roles for his relievers. Even at closer, where Hawkins has the job -- but Weiss reserves the right to use Brothers and could eventually place the job in Brothers' left hand -- there is wiggle room in case injury or performance dictates.
"It's tough to go an entire season where everybody in the bullpen pitches only one role," Weiss said. "Versatility is important down there. Of course, guys will fall into certain slots in the game, but that doesn't mean they necessarily have to stay there. The bottom line is, we're trying to get through nine innings and pitch effectively."
"I'm not worried about creating a role for every guy down there while we're down here [in Spring Training]. That stuff works itself out, and it evolves over the course of the season."
In their last two playoff campaigns they proved fit for evolution.
In 2007, left-hander Brian Fuentes went into the year as closer, but was affected by an injury. Corpas took the job and helped the team to the World Series. Late in 2009, when the Rockies were trying to clinch their playoff berth, Huston Street was felled by injury. Morales earned the save in the game that clinched a postseason berth.
But the evolution of last year's bullpen helped extinguish the Rockies' once-high hopes. With Rafael Betancourt as closer, there was a stable relief corps that had Brothers as primary setup man. But Betancourt was lost three times with injury -- the last leading to season-ending elbow surgery. Brothers became closer and wasn't affected -- he finished with 19 saves and a 1.74 ERA in 72 appearances. But games were lost before he could get into them because the Rockies became shaky in the setup role that Brothers vacated.
Brothers enters the season not only ready to accept his role but confident there is talent to adapt over the course of the season.
"We added a lot of veteran leadership, and those guys have done it a long time," Brothers said. "I definitely believe whatever is thrown at the bullpen, it'll be handled."
The Rockies need bounce-back seasons from Belisle (5-7, 4.32 ERA in 72 games) and Lopez (3-4, 4.06 in 75 games), but there may be help if the heavy workloads of the past continue to affect Belisle and Lopez this season. Ottavino (1-3, 2.64 ERA) pitched well in some late-game trials toward the end of last season, and has a jack-of-all-trades mentality to pitch where needed, and Hawkins, Brothers and Logan -- who is gradually beefing up for the season after having bone chips removed from his throwing elbow during the offseason -- all are versatile.
Belisle, 33, is a veteran who is more concerned with the job being done than who gets the credit.
"A strong bullpen makes any team better. A strong bullpen that doesn't get taxed, is rotated well, is going to make any team better. It's going to help pull you out of jams. It's going to save games on the road that need to be won. There's no doubt that we have that in place this year."
Hawkins, who became the Mets' closer last season and earned 13 saves after the start of August, believes in the talent as much as anyone, and is eager to find out if it translates into success.
"The bullpen is one of the most unstable components to putting a team together," Hawkins said. "You know what you're getting but you don't know what you're getting. You've got to play out the season."