In the early 2000's the Rockies were a perennial 90 game loser. They were the laughing stock of baseball, the Kansas City Royals of the National League. They were a team that looked as if they were headed nowhere. Bogged down by huge contracts given to players who never panned out, the Rockies were cellar-dwellers.
Fast-forward to 2010 and the Rockies spent the first two months of the season taking a beating from local media for underachieving. After all, they were just three games over the .500 mark when the calendar changed to June. That kind of record in 2003 would have had Rockies fans, all four of them, rejoicing in the empty streets of LoDo.
In those trying years, if the Rockies had lost their second best starter to injury, and had their closer without an appearance by the beginning of June it possibly could have put the team on the fast track to their first ever 100 lose season.
This season is different. The Rockies are about two weeks away from one or two very difficult decisions.
Closer Huston Street, who signed a three-year $21 million deal in January, will be returning to the team somewhere around the middle of June. In addition to Street, the Rockies are eagerly anticipating the return of Taylor Buchholz who missed the entire 2009 campaign after being one of the most dominant 8th inning guys in Major League Baseball in 2008.
Those two pitchers have missed quite a bit of time, which means there are some concerns about how effective they will be right out of the gate. However, both have good enough track records to immediately garner a roster spot.
The two pitchers will immediately join a bullpen that has been lights out so far in 2010. It seems that night-in and night-out that the Rockies are consistently putting up zero's in the late innings.
That is where the Rockies have a few issues. When Buchholz and Street return, which pitchers on the current roster find themselves out of luck? At the beginning of spring training the answer to that question would have been quite a bit easier. Matt Belisle and Randy Flores probably would have been waived.
However, anyone who has watched the Rockies play in 2010 knows how valuable Belisle has been to the club. In 23 appearances, Belisle sports a 2.10 ERA with 37 strikeouts and just eight walks in 34-1/3 innings. His WHIP is under 1.00 at 0.990. He has been effective in one inning situations, but has shown the ability to be effective in multi-inning situations if needed. There is no way Belisle goes anywhere.
Flores has also pitched well. Pitching mainly in lefty on lefty situations, Flores has done his job most of the time despite a 3.97 ERA.
So if Belisle is guaranteed a spot in the 'pen, then who has to be the odd man out when a roster move must be made? The Rockies probably do not need three lefties in the bullpen. With Franklin Morales returning from the disabled list and being stretched out during his rehab it looks like he will be the long man. So the battle is between Flores and Joe Beimel. The problem for Flores is that Beimel is quietly putting together a phenomenal season. He gave up a home run in his first appearance, but has yet to give up a run in 19 innings since then.
The odd man out is Flores, with two other left handed options in the bullpen, Flores becomes expendable. Without options left, Flores will have to be designated for assignment and exposed to other teams before being sent back to the minors. There is a decent chance that he will be picked up.
Sending Flores out solves one problem. So what do the Rockies do when Buchholz returns? Unfortunately the Rockies showed their hand when Jeff Francis returned from injury in late May. The odd man out when Street returns is fan favorite Matt Daley. The move will come not because Daley has been ineffective, but because Daley still has options remaining. That means that the Rockies can safely store him away in Colorado Springs without the risk of losing him. It is unfortunate for Daley, but part of being a young bullpen pitcher in the big leagues.
Meet Randy Flores once and it becomes clear that his personality is infectious. At RockiesFest in January he was not afraid to make fun of anyone of his teammates at any time. During the pitchers session, several pitchers were quick to point out that he was the funniest guy on the team. Losing someone like that is never good in a clubhouse.
So what should the solution be instead? How about sending Morales back down to Colorado Springs. No one doubts that the lefty has the stuff to be very good in the big leagues, however, no one is holding their breath for him to reach his potential either. Morales struggles with finding the strike zone, something that simply is unacceptable for a reliever, especially someone who aspires to be a late inning guy.
As tough as it is to lose valuable members of the bullpen, it is a good problem to have for the Rockies. Having to send out guys like Daley and Flores is a sign of how far the club has come. Having depth that requires tough decisions is simply something that comes with the job of being a general manager of a squad that is competing for the playoffs. Frankly, being in a position like this is something that Rockies fans never anticipated being in five or six years ago.
It is not only a testament to not only how good the bullpen is, but the overall depth that the Rockies possess.
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