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Estévez, Díaz look to boost Rox 'pen in 2020

@harding_at_mlb
February 23, 2020

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Right-handed pitchers Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz emerged from the smoldering coals of last August and September to brighten hopes for 2020. Righty Scott Oberg, the primary righty setup man and sometime closer, threw his last pitch on Aug. 16, before having to undergo surgery to correct

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Right-handed pitchers Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz emerged from the smoldering coals of last August and September to brighten hopes for 2020.

Righty Scott Oberg, the primary righty setup man and sometime closer, threw his last pitch on Aug. 16, before having to undergo surgery to correct blood clots in his throwing arm. With Oberg out and Wade Davis lost in injury and struggle, the Rockies accelerated the plan to develop relievers who would pitch big innings for lower prices in future seasons.

That meant Estévez and Díaz -- hard throwers with typical and atypical successes and struggles of youth -- had a chance to pitch the important innings. They thrived.

“Specifically, Jairo and Carlos were thrust into a lot of crucial situations,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “The experience that Jairo and Carlos got was big for their development.”

From Aug. 17 to season’s end, Estévez posted a 2.95 ERA and struck out 17 against three walks in 18 1/3 innings. Díaz had a 3.79 ERA with five saves in seven chances, and 18 strikeouts against six walks in 19 innings. From Sept. 1, Estévez was scored upon once and Díaz three times in 24 combined appearances.

Davis, righty Bryan Shaw and lefty Jake McGee are due a combined $35.5 million in base salary this year to conclude contracts signed before the 2018 season. But the Rockies planned to usher in a less-expensive ‘pen. Oberg took a three-year, $13 million contract during the winter, Estévez signed for $1.08 million for ’20 and is under club control through 2022 and Díaz won’t begin his three arbitration years until next season.

Oberg, who built upon a solid finish to 2018 last year, is a step ahead in establishing himself. If they earn late-game trust, Estévez and Díaz could make it an economical but effective right-handed triumvirate -- which would free up resources for starting pitching or position player expenditures.

The Rockies rushed Estévez into the closer role as a rookie in 2016, when his four-seam fastball reached 100 mph 30 times. His apprenticeship included an appearance in the National League Wild Card Game in 2017, and a 2018 during which he didn’t appear in the Majors because of left oblique and right elbow strains.

Estévez used the injury year to learn from veterans such as Adam Ottavino, Davis and Oberg. He touched triple digits nine times last season, and more importantly, learned when and when not to let it fly.

With one out and runners at the corners in a 2-1 Rockies home win over the Cardinals last Sept. 10, Estévez faced Harrison Bader. While aiming for a double-play grounder to end the inning made sense, Estévez recalled Ottavino’s advice against a speedy hitter like Bader: Go with high fastballs for a strikeout because a failed twin killing meant a run. Estévez’s strikeout begat another strikeout, of José Martinez, and he could turn the final two innings over to Díaz.

Estévez once kept a book, but felt he was taking in too much information. Now he consults with others, especially Oberg, and watches brief video. Estévez feels more confidence because of his knowledge base and the success in games for the relievers who got a chance.

“We opened some eyes and they know they can count on us,” Estévez said. “They knew we could come back ready to battle. That was a good start to 2020, actually.”

Díaz missed 2016 because of Tommy John right elbow surgery and lost his wife to cancer a year later. The Rockies were patient as he worked his way back, and by the end of last year his fastball and confidence had returned. The Rockies acquired him from the Angels before 2015 in hopes of developing him into a closer option. Black accelerated the process in September by pushing Díaz with heavy usage, sometimes for multiple innings.

“I feel pretty good and my arm feels good,” Díaz said. “I feel like [2015] when my arm was still healthy. I’m just working with my command, locating my pitches better.”

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.