All eyes on closer competition in Rockies camp

February 17th, 2024

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-handed relievers and throw different breaking pitches, but measurements show they are equally nasty. They’ve also had big moments as middle relievers and setup men.

But going into 2024, with Daniel Bard’s spring slowed because of a knee injury, either Lawrence or Kinley will likely have to protect ninth-inning leads as closer. Both had a crack at the job last year, with mixed results.

Can either of them grab this job and make a ninth-inning future?

There’s an argument for this being the key competition of the Rockies’ camp, for reasons beyond 2024. Even if Bard -- who could return in the middle of camp because his surgery was less extensive than feared -- shakes off last year’s injuries and struggles, and returns to his form 2021-22, he is 38 and at the back end of a two-year, $19 million deal.

Lawrence, 29, is under club control through 2028. Kinley, 33, is in the second year of a three-year, $6.25 million deal with a 2026 option that escalates based on games finished. As with so many aspects of a club that embraced rebuilding while falling to 59-103 in 2023, anything that happens now is a step toward future seasons.

At the very least, this is a tryout for future closer.

“There are many guys in the locker room that want the ninth, and competition is going to bring out the best in all of us,” Kinley said. “So let’s have fun.”

Lawrence began last season with a 1.47 ERA in 15 appearances, and became the closer in June after Pierce Johnson (later traded to the Braves) struggled with walks. Lawrence converted seven of his first eight save opportunities and had a 1.86 ERA in 17 games after being christened closer. But he fell into struggles until being removed from the role in early September.

The year, though, was overall a positive for Lawrence, who had never been a Major Leaguer over a full season. His signature pitch, the sweeper, made him a sensation and a curiosity. The dramatic break of the pitch is designed to dart out of the zone when the hitter swings. Staying nasty with the sweeper, and not being tentative when behind in the count, is a task he took into the offseason.

“It’s very easy for the hitter knowing that the heater is coming, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, whatever the count may be,” Lawrence said. “Knowing I can locate that pitch in different counts in any situation, especially late-game, you’re going to need to do that to be successful.”

As the season progressed, manager Bud Black’s bullpen was mostly populated with relievers at or below Lawrence’s experience level. Black said the big assignment accelerated Lawrence’s development.

“He’s growing into and learning to be that guy,” Black said. “There are a lot of people in my camp, who truly believe that the ninth inning is different from any other inning. There are young players who come up and do it, but usually you have to go through the rigors of a season or two to get your footing and the belief that you are a Major League pitcher, first, and then truly a Major League back-of-the-bullpen pitcher.”

In 2022, Kinley had a 0.75 ERA through 25 appearances, with a downward-breaking slider – different from Lawrence’s sweeper, but just as effective. According to MLB Quality of Pitch, which evaluates every pitch in various categories, the location and vertical break of Kinley’s slider were each in the top 9 percent among MLB hurlers.

But Kinley underwent right flexor tendon surgery at midseason and didn’t appear in 2023 until Aug. 1. He had an eventful two months, going back to the injured list on Aug. 20 with right elbow inflammation before returning in September and converting five of his six save chances.

In all, he posted a 6.06 ERA in 18 total games, with 17 strikeouts against six walks.

His stuff was understandably not as devastating -- top 18 percent vertical break and top 27 percent location -- but he felt right at the end.

“Before the injury, I felt I could throw it in any count, any location and that’s what I’m getting back to now,” Kinley said.

If he does, he may have a ninth-inning future.

“We think he’s mentally built to handle the ninth inning,” Black said. “Stuff-wise, he’s got weapons. He can pitch with velocity with the fastball, has a swing-and-miss slider and he’s working on the changeup. The bread and butter is his slider. But like Justin, he’s not a secret anymore in the National League and in our division.”