Rockies realize stronger bullpen is vital, but can they get in game?
At Dodger Stadium, the sight of closer Kenley Jansen taking the mound meant it was time cue up the Dodgers’ victory song — Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”
In other locales — Denver and San Francisco quickly come to mind — the lack of a trusted bullpen signaled white-knuckle time. The Rockies posted a major leagueworst 5.13 ERA and blew 28 save chances this year. The Giants blew 30 save chances and lost nine games in which they led entering the ninth inning, both major-league highs. They ended up losing the NL West title to the rival Dodgers by just four games.
So what did the Giants do? They made the first big splash of the offseason, signing Mark Melancon to a four-year contract worth $62 million. It was the largest contract for a reliever, eclipsing the four-year, $50 million deal the Philadelphia Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon before the 2012 season. But Melancon’s place atop the list didn’t last long. A few days later, the New York Yankees landed left-handed flame-
thrower Aroldis Chapman for five years at the cost of $86 million.
The trend is clear: If you want to be a true contender, a bulletproof bullpen is essential. Giants manager Bruce Bochy summed it up last week at baseball’s winter meetings.
“I think more and more we’re realizing how important a closer is,” Bochy said. “They stabilize your season. Because when you lose games late, it’s a blow. It’s a shot to the chin. And you take enough of ’em, it can wear your team out.”
The Rockies talked with Melancon and his representatives, and a source said that Melancon, a product of Golden High School, was open to returning to Colorado but only if the money being offered was close, and if Melencon truly believed the Rockies were a contender. In the end, Melancon signed a huge contract and landed with a team that has World Series aspirations.
“It was obvious that this organization knows how to win, and that’s their top priority,” Melancon told San Francisco reporters.
The Rockies, it turned out, were never really in the game.
“We kept in touch and checked in to see where his representatives thought the market would go,” Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said. “He just ended up being a better fit somewhere else. … They knew that we were interested, but I wouldn’t say we were at the front of the line.”
Of the big-three freeagent closers, only Jansen remained unsigned through Friday. According to media reports, the Miami Marlins were likely to beat out the Dodgers for Jansen, at a cost of about $80 million for five years.
Jansen, a powerful righthander with an elusive cut fastball, is the Dodgers’ franchise leader in saves with 189. He converted 47of-53 save chances last season, then was used as a multi-inning reliever during the Dodgers’ march to the National League Championship Series.
The Marlins’ Don Mattingly, who managed Jansen in Los Angeles before moving on to Miami for the 2016 season, believes Jansen would help turn the young Marlins into contenders in the NL East.
“He’s a guy that’s durable. He’s really a guy without a lot of innings on him,” Mattingly said. “He’s a guy that has shown he’s capable of going one plus. Seeing what (Dodgers manager Dave Roberts) did with him in the playoffs, being able to stretch him out … give him a day off and then he’s right back out there. He’s a guy that showed durability, bounce-back and able to handle any situation.”
The last two seasons have demonstrated just how much a deep and talented bullpen is worth. The Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series in large part because of a bullpen that could take over a game from innings six through nine. Creative use of relievers Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero led the Cleveland Indians to the 2016 American League pennant.
Chapman, of course, helped the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series title in 108 years, but the Cubs’ front office decided not to get into a free-agent bidding war to retain him. Instead, the Cubs swung a deal with the Royals, sending talented, young outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City in exchange for closer Wade Davis.
During the past three seasons, Davis has posted a 1.18 ERA with 47 saves over 185 appearances. Cubs manager Joe Maddon knows the right-hander well from their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays (2009-12), so that was a factor in the Cubs’ thinking.
“One thing we learned this year, and I know (Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore) learned it in ’14 and ’15, is when you play that extra month (in the playoffs), it’s really hard on your bullpen,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “It’s really hard on your whole pitching staff. The more good relievers we can add to that, the more we can add that length and have versatile weapons, the better.”
The Rockies, meanwhile, continue to say they’re searching for ways to bolster their bullpen, either through a free-agent signing or through a trade. But Bridich has also repeatedly said that the Rockies may already have their closer on their roster, specifically mentioning right-hander Adam Ottavino, while noting that right-hander Carlos Estevez, a rookie last season, and veteran left-hander Jake McGee have ninthinning experience.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the Rockies becoming contenders without bringing in some new relievers. Bridich has acknowledged the club’s interest in former Miami left-hander Mike Dunn, as well as right-handed sidearmer Brad Ziegler. Other free-agent relievers still on the market include right-handers Neftali Perez, Joe Blanton and Yusmeiro Petit. The challenge, as it always is, is convincing a pitcher to pitch at Coors Field.