DENVER -- Carlos Estévez’s season embodied that of the Rockies’ bullpen in 2021 -- full of new and more intense assignments, which led to lumps but also brought progress.
Step back from the day-to-day of the season and it’s apparent it was a year for development with Estévez, as well as many of his less-experienced relief mates. But what does it all mean for 2022?
For Estévez, a right-hander who finished the year as the closer, and others for that matter, 2021 results are only part of the plan for next year. The rest is dependent on the front office, which is exploring an ambitious strategy of surprise postseason trips past -- signing a closer with extensive experience.
Estévez, 29 on Dec. 28 and owner of a four-seam fastball that averaged a well-above-average 97.1 mph, sacrificed his Spring Training and the early part of the regular year to developing confidence in his changeup, which played off his heater and hard slider. In his last 17 outings, Estévez converted nine of his 11 save chances, although the year ended on a down note -- a blown save on a homer yielded to the D-backs’ Josh VanMeter in the season finale.
It was Estévez’s second trial as closer. The first came when he was pressed into the ninth inning during his rookie year of 2016, when his strategy didn’t go much deeper than slinging his fastball.
“This year, I’ve been pitching more than any other year,” Estévez said in Phoenix the morning of the season finale. “Like, pitching backwards, knowing how to pitch when I fall behind in the count. I was put in different roles, where I couldn’t throw cookies down the middle. I had to pitch my way around the strike zone, then come back in -- make the hitter make a mistake, instead of him hitting my mistake.”
The Rockies’ use of five rookie relievers and a few other low-service time pitchers put Estévez in the position of being a bullpen leader. After Mychal Givens was traded to the Reds, Estévez ranked third in Major League service time behind veterans Daniel Bard, who moved from closer to middle relief, and Jhoulys Chacín.
The inexperience led predictably to struggles. The relief staff’s 4.89 ERA was fifth-highest in the Majors, despite being not far off from the 4.62 compiled by the crew on the 2018 team that qualified for the postseason.
The group showed potential through its 95.2 mph average four-seam fastball velocity – fourth among Major League relief staffs. Command must improve, but Estévez emerged impressed. Tyler Kinley and Robert Stephenson, plus rookies Lucas Gilbreath and Jordan Sheffield had strong finishes after absorbing rough periods.
“This group is the fastest I’ve ever seen,” Estévez said. “And the good thing is they don’t shy away from pitching at Coors Field. They don’t shy away from pitching anywhere. They’ll say, ‘Give me the ball. I’ll pitch anywhere.’”
As general manager Bill Schmidt noted, one of the Rockies’ key missions this winter is to find someone to “get outs in the eighth and ninth inning.” The Rockies also are surveying the market for a shortstop and for outfield power. The interest in the back of the bullpen indicates Schmidt wants to take a shot at being a surprise contender, rather than concede the year to development.
The Rockies want to repeat the success of Greg Holland, whose 41 saves in 2017 helped lead to the first postseason trip in nine years, and Wade Davis, whose 42 saves helped bring a postseason berth in ’18. Davis, though, struggled the next year and was released in ’20 at the end of his three-year deal.
The goal is experience on a short-term deal. The club has not discussed names publicly, but a Major League source identified Mark Melancon, a Wheat Ridge, Colo., native who represented the Padres in the 2021 All-Star Game at Coors Field, and Cory Knebel, who had a strong regular season and postseason finish for the Dodgers after overcoming a right lat strain.
The net is wide. The source said the front office is researching Dellin Betances, who made four All-Star trips for the Yankees, to see if he is poised to reverse his recent struggles with the Yankees and Mets.
Manager Bud Black saw some impressive Estévez performances, but also hiccups. Both occurred on Sept. 14 against the eventual World Series champion Braves in Atlanta. Estévez overcame a potentially damaging walk and a hit, but ended a 5-4 victory by forcing a pop-up from eventual World Series Most Valuable Player Jorge Soler.
“All good closers pass the test of time,” Black said. “It’s really early to make judgments on Carlos as a big-time closer moving forward, and that’s not a knock on Carlos. But all the good ones that I’ve been around as a player, as a pitching coach, as a manager, the ninth-inning guy knows how to weave his way through an inning.”
Estévez believes the experience at Coors that he and the current group possess will come into play, regardless of whom the Rockies add.
“If we do bring someone in, OK, good,” Estévez said. “But if we don’t, all of us guys here have the stuff.”