Relief in Sight? There is No Guarantee Given Bullpen Uncertainties

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A year ago, the Rockies went on an off-season spending free on bullpen arms, resulting in what at the time was a record-setting Opening Day bullpen payroll of $45.8 million.

You know what they say about records being made to be broken?

Well, the Rockies high-priced bullpen is no longer No. 1.

This winter, it has been the Yankees who have made the major bullpen investments, capped by the signing of former Rockies right-hander Adam Ottavino, whose three-year, $27 million deal – depending on how the payout is arranged – figures to open the way for the Yankees to break that record the Rockies set a year ago.

With Ottavino ($9 million estimate) and fellow off-season signee Zack Britton ($13 million), along with holdovers Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million), Dellin Betances ($7.25 million) and Tommy Kahnle ($1.3875 million), the Yankees will open the season with a bullpen payroll of $48.375 even before the final two spots are filled.

And as big as the investment was last year, Rockies fans know the bullpen became the team’s biggest challenge. While Ottavino was the most consistent, down the stretch he hit a wall, and in the final five weeks of the season his 5.87 ERA was the second highest among the 11 relievers on the roster.

Meanwhile, closer Wade Davis, who was in the first year of a $52 million deal, was allowing just one run in 12 games, earning saves in all eight situations, and the bullpen benefited from the July 31 trading deadline addition of Seunghwan Oh, emergence of Scott Oberg (1.93) and late-season revival of lefty Chris Rusin (3.38). The quartet combined to make 51 appearances, work 51 1/3 innings and compile a combined 2.28 ERA.

Down the Stretch in 2018

Such is the life of a reliever. While closers have a track record of consistency, working in a very defined role, rarely warming up if they do not go into a game, and that’s rarely in a game without a lead to protect, the rest of the bullpen can be asked to warm up multiple times in a game without any guarantee they will even take the mound.

The residual? There seems to be a mixture of seasons of domination and seasons of struggle. That’s what made Shaw such a special case when the Rockies were able to sign him as a free agent a year ago. In five years with the Indians, he averaged 75.6 appearances a season, never appearing in fewer than 70 games in a year, and had a 3.45 ERA in the setup role.

Guess it could be said he was due for a struggle, like what he suffered with the Rockies. In his Rockies debut he had a 5.93 ERA, went 0-for-5 in save situations, and allowed 99 baserunners in 54 2/3 innings. Oh, and that’s even though in the final two months he allowed only four runs in 14 innings over 15 appearances.

And then there was Ottavino, who a year ago was considered the biggest concern in the bullpen the Rockies had in place coming out of spring training only to rebound in 2018 from a nightmarish 2017. How bad was 2017? Well, the Rockies left him off the roster for the wild-card game in Arizona after he went through a season in which he had a 5.06 ERA and walked 39 batters in 53 1/3 innings.

The reason he was back was he had a $7 million guaranteed salary in the final year of a three-year deal.

He rebounded impressively.

Tale of Two Seasons

But as the baseball world is slowly learning, when it comes to relievers, there are no guarantees of performance from one year to the next, even if the salaries are guaranteed.