SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Two Colorado Rockies relievers will embark upon an altitudinally enhanced voyage of discovery this season. Wade Davis is settling in as the team’s new closer, and Bryan Shaw will be his main right-handed setup man, and all it took was a little sweet talk and a guaranteed $79 million over the next three years to convince them to chuck their apprehensions and buy into the program.
Lefty Jake McGee, the other target in general manager Jeff Bridich’s offseason bullpen spending binge, enters the first season of a three-year, $27 million deal with a more familiar orientation. He came to Colorado from Tampa Bay by trade in January 2016, and he has spent the past two years learning all about the flexibility, resilience and other attributes required to succeed in one of the most daunting environments for pitchers in the majors.
A year ago, McGee posted a 4.73 ERA at Coors Field and a 2.64 mark on the road. He decided to re-up regardless.
“Jake McGee is a testament to what’s happening here,” Bridich said. “He came over in trade, and he had no choice but to pitch and figure it out. When he did have a choice, he wanted to come back here. Not only did he want to do that, he wanted to help recruit his buddy Wade Davis. I think that says a lot about the stuff we have going on, and the belief that guys have in each other here.”
As Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and a slew of less acclaimed players at the MLBPA academy for the homeless in Bradenton, Florida, can attest, the offseason was atypically slow, unproductive and unusually stressful for dozens of free agents. Relief pitchers were the notable exception. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 36 free-agent relievers signed deals worth a total of almost $340 million this offseason. That’s less than the total payout of $421 million that 33 free-agent relievers received in the winter of 2016-2017. But that total was skewed significantly by the $228 million allotted to three closers: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.
Relief pitchers have come a long way from the days when Scott Sullivan, Scott Proctor and Aaron Heilman were pitched into the ground and never attained that one big payday. McGee, Shaw, Luke Gregerson, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Anthony Swarzak, Joe Smith, Juan Nicasio, Steve Cishek and Yusmeiro Petit all received multiyear contracts in the $10 million to $30 million range this offseason. Those 11 pitchers combined for 25 saves in 2017.
In front offices, it’s generally accepted that any long-term commitment to a reliever comes with a healthy dose of hope. Relievers spend so much time getting loose in the pen — and can be so vulnerable to overuse depending on the manager’s tendencies — that they’re prone to wide variances in performance from one year to the next. As a result, cost-conscious teams have been just as inclined to take a flyer on a kid with a big arm as to throw money at the problem. Exhibit A: Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel, who recorded 39 saves, struck out 126 batters in 76 innings and made the All-Star team for a salary of $538,900 in 2017.
“Teams think that some bullpens can come into their own, based on the unevenness of some guys’ careers,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “You have Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and a bunch of guys who’ve had great careers. But for a lot of relievers, it’s, ‘Great year, bad year.’ That’s been the case for so many of them.”
The Rockies’ $106 million offseason investment in three free-agent relievers is a record outlay for a big-league team, and Bridich took franchise history into account before embarking upon his plan. Curtis Leskanic, Steve Reed and Darren Holmes — currently the Rockies’ bullpen coach — formed the nucleus of a durable and fearless bullpen when Colorado made its first playoff appearance as a franchise in 1995. The Brian Fuentes-Manny Corpas-Jeremy Affeldt-LaTroy Hawkins contingent turned in some impressive work when the Rockies won the NL pennant in 2007, and Huston Street saved 35 games and logged a 154 ERA+ for a 92-win wild-card team in 2009.
Last year, the Rockies took a flyer on former Royals closer Greg Holland, and he performed well enough to make the National League All-Star team before fading down the stretch. The Rockies made an offer to re-sign Holland and appeared close to finalizing a deal before talks stalled and they moved on to Davis.
Bridich factored roster makeup into his decision to splurge on the bullpen. The Rockies have several young position players on the cusp and some talented 25-and-under starters, but they needed a quick injection of stability behind Adam Ottavino, Mike Dunn, Chris Rusin and the other relievers already in the fold. When owner Dick Monfort bought into the plan, Bridich signed veteran catcher Chris Iannetta and went to work fortifying the back end.
“Like any free-agent market, you’re not quite sure how it’s going to end up when you start out,” Bridich said. “I think we’re blessed that Dick gave us the ability to be aggressive. And we needed to be aggressive. As everybody saw, in a slow market, it was the relief pitchers that flew off the board first.
“The prices are different now than they were five years ago, so it’s happened fairly quickly. It used to be the closers that were getting $10-14 million a year. Now other guys in the bullpen are getting those sorts of dollars.”
Blown leads are debilitating for any team, but the idea of a deep, reliable pen is particularly resonant in Colorado. Rockies starting pitchers ranked last in the NL in innings for four straight years from 2012-2015 before ramping up to seventh in 2016 and ninth last season.
“In our park, especially, run-prevention can be very uplifting late in the game,” Black said. “On the other hand, the lack of run-prevention late can be very demoralizing. If you can close out games where you have the lead — or you stay close and come back and win — it’s just great confidence for the group. The position players feel great about each and every game, and they’re not worried about, ‘Hey, here we go again.’ That’s a bad thought: Here we go again.”
Power pitchers and ground ball types are optimal at Coors, for obvious reasons. According to FanGraphs, the Rockies threw the third-highest ratio of fastballs in the majors (61 percent), behind only the Pirates and Padres, and the third-lowest rate of changeups (7.4 percent), ahead of only the Angels and Brewers. But Bridich and Black looked beyond individual repertoire and focused just as much on pitchers with competitive mentalities and iron wills.
They did plenty of legwork in their search. Black called Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona for a scouting report on Shaw and placed another call to Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy, who had worked with Shaw in Arizona. Rockies bullpen coach Steve Foster was well-acquainted with Davis from their mutual tenure in Kansas City. McGee, who pitched with Davis in Tampa Bay in 2011, was happy to make a recruiting pitch.
“We’ve talked about the mental part of the pitcher, and how important that is,” Black said. “The unselfishness when it comes to statistics. It’s about the team first and the ability to turn the page and resiliency both physically and mentally. We’re looking for those qualities in a pitcher. That’s what we’re trying to develop through our system too — that mindset of drafted Rockies and developed Rockies. Once you get to Denver, it’s heads-up. Things are a little different. But if you can pitch and make pitches, it doesn’t matter where you play. And we think this organization is a great place to be.”
Durability is part of the equation. Shaw leads the majors in appearances since 2013, with 378 games. As MLB executives who pay big money to relievers will attest, the numbers cut both ways. Viewed from a glass-half-full perspective, Shaw seems like a good bet to hold up because of his experience and track record. The alternate, more fatalistic flip side: He has logged a lot of mileage in the bullpen, and the wear and tear is destined to catch up to him eventually.
“For me, it’s just being smart, knowing my arm and my body,” Shaw said. “And if I need a day off, communicating that and telling Bud or [Foster], ‘Hey, I’m hanging a little bit today.’ The trainers have good routines for us, and you can get the right work done. If you’re going to go in there and do busywork just to do work, that isn’t beneficial.”
After two seasons of dealing with the demands of life at 5,280 feet, McGee is happy to provide a tutorial for the new guys on some of the challenges that await this season.
“I’ve already told them when you’re on a long homestand and you’ve thrown a few times, you’re going to be a little tired toward the end,” McGee said. “By June or July, your legs are going to be a little out of it. It’s going to happen, and you really can’t do anything about it. You just make the adjustments and go from there. Different pitches move differently at home and on the road. Once you get a feel for that, it makes it easier.”
Nothing will prepare Davis and Shaw for their new adventure except the reality of the grind. The Rockies have placed a historic bet on their bullpen. The coming months will determine if they spent that $106 million wisely.
Rheal Cormier, longtime MLB pitcher and 2-time Olympian, dies at 53 after cancer battle
PHILADELPHIA — Rheal Cormier, the durable left-hander who spent 16 seasons in the majors and remarkably pitched in the Olympics before and after his time in the big leagues, died Monday. He was 53.
The Philadelphia Phillies said Cormier died of cancer at his home in New Brunswick, Canada.
Cormier owned a neat nook in Phillies history: He was the winning pitcher in the final game that Philadelphia won at Veterans Stadium in 2003, and also was the winner in the first game the Phils won after moving into Citizens Bank Park in 2004.
Overall, he was 71-64 with two saves and a 4.03 ERA with St. Louis, Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. A member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, Cormier pitched 683 games — among his countrymen, only Paul Quantrill (841) pitched more in the majors.
Cormier made other prominent appearances on the mound, too.
Three years before his big league debut, he pitched for Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Then in 2008, a year after his final game in the majors, he again threw for Canada in the 2008 Beijing Games — he tuned up for the event by tossing in a men’s senior league.
“Rheal was one of the most vibrant people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” former teammate and Hall of Famer Jim Thome said in a statement released by the Phillies. “He loved baseball, but he always put his family first.”
“Frenchy was the kind of guy who would do anything for you and I’m lucky to have called him my friend for many years. Our time spent together in Philadelphia as teammates was unforgettable. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten,” Thome said.
Cormier went 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA in 65 games for the Phillies in 2003. That was the final season in the majors for another Philadelphia lefty, longtime reliever Dan Plesac.
“One of my all time favorite teammates. Big heart, spent 2yrs sitting next to him in the @Phillies bullpen,” Plesac tweeted. “he made everyone he played with better…keep throwing that 3-2 splitter in heaven.”
RIP “Frenchy” … Rheal Cormier lost his battle with cancer. One of my all time favorite teammates. Big heart, spent 2yrs sitting next to him in the @Phillies bullpen (2002-2003)… he made everyone he played with better…keep throwing that 3-2 splitter in heaven. RIP my friend. pic.twitter.com/lGDGBCm8T2
— Dan Plesac (@Plesac19) March 8, 2021
In 2004, Cormier got into 84 games, a Phillies record for a left-handed pitcher.
Cormier debuted with the Cardinals in 1991 and was a starter early in his career. He pitched his only shutout in 1996 for the Expos, a three-hitter against St. Louis.
A lefty specialist in his later years, he finished with six games for Cincinnati in 2007, making his last appearance in the majors five days before his 40th birthday. He reached the postseason twice, both times with Boston.
The Phillies said Cormier became a U.S. citizen on Sept. 22, 2004, during a Philadelphia-Marlins series in Miami.
“I’m living the American dream and feel like I can give back, help the community and be a part of this country,” Cormier said shortly before the ceremony.
The Phillies said Cormier was active with Phillies Charities Inc. during his six years with the club and was involved with teenage anti-drug and suicide prevention programs in Canada.
Cormier is survived by his wife, Lucienne, son Justin and daughter Morgan.
Los Angeles Dodgers’ David Price open to any role in 2021 — Whatever makes us better
GLENDALE, Ariz. — David Price watched the 2020 season as a spectator and was often struck by the talent throughout the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation. When the offseason progressed and word began to spread that his team might ultimately add Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Price knew it would create a significant logjam.
He reached out to Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and delivered a message — if Bauer signs, he’ll take on any role.
“Whatever makes the 2021 Dodgers better,” Price said, “I’m all for it.”
When Price made his spring debut from Camelback Ranch on Monday, retiring all three Chicago White Sox hitters he faced in the fourth inning, the blueprint remained fuzzy.
With Bauer and Price, a five-time All-Star who sat out the COVID-19-shortened season, the Dodgers boast at least seven bona-fide starting pitchers. Atop the pecking order are Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. Somewhere near the bottom reside Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin — all young, all talented, all ready to join a major league rotation.
With Kershaw, Buehler, May, Urias and Gonsolin absorbing a vast majority of the starts in 2020, the Dodgers led the NL in ERA while en route to a World Series championship. Adding Bauer and Price to the mix now gives them an important layer of depth for a year when the entire industry is worried about how to account for the innings jump that comes with increasing the regular-season schedule from 60 to 162 games.
The Dodgers might initially get creative with their starting pitching, perhaps by using two starters per game as a way to limit workloads early on. But their plans remain nebulous.
For now, at least, all eight starters on the Dodgers’ depth chart — a list that includes Jimmy Nelson, who was brought in on a minor league contract — will be stretched out traditionally.
“They all might be a little bit different,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of how he’ll use his starters in April, “but we all see them from that same lens.”
Price, 35, joined the Dodgers alongside Mookie Betts in February of 2020 but announced he would opt out of the season five months later, citing a desire to remain close to his family during a tumultuous time. He’ll make $64 million over the next two years, with the Boston Red Sox paying half his salary.
Prior to his most recent outing, Price had logged only 4 1/3 innings in a stretch of 18 months, all of them in spring training.
He was admittedly anxious in the hours leading up to his spring debut.
“Could feel it last night, could feel it yesterday leading up to today,” Price said. “This morning when I woke up I was excited, antsy while I was on the field. It felt good to get back out there.”
Price began his outing by falling behind in the count, 2-0, to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, then came back to retire him on a groundout and began to settle down. He followed by striking out Luis Robert and ended the inning by inducing a harmless pop-up to Jose Abreu, the reigning American League MVP.
The stadium radar gun twice clocked Price’s fastball at 94 mph, a couple ticks faster than his average from 2019.
“I was hoping for 92,” Price said. “I saw the changeup at 86, so I knew it couldn’t have been too bad. Ninety-four — that’s awesome. If I can go out there and be 91 to 93, I can be very effective. If I can get it up to 94 and 95, maybe even more. That’s a good sign.”
Washington Nationals mum on why Jeremy Jeffress released; Jon Lester returns to camp
Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo declined to specify Monday why Jeremy Jeffress was released from a minor league contract by the team, saying only that he considered it an “employment issue” and acknowledging it was not related to the reliever’s baseball performance.
“We’re just going to stand by the statement I made yesterday. It’s a ‘personnel matter’,” Rizzo said in a video conference with reporters a day after the team cut ties with Jeffress, a 2018 NL All-Star for the Brewers who was with the Cubs last season. “We’re not going to discuss it any further, per our policy on personnel matters, and we’re just going to keep it at that.”
Asked to define the term he used in relation to the move, Rizzo responded, “A ‘personnel reason’ is an employment issue.”
After Washington announced his release Sunday, Jeffress tweeted: “I’m not what they say I am, I’m what God says! I don’t deserve this false negativity!”
Manager Dave Martinez wouldn’t comment on Jeffress at all.
“I’m really not inclined to talk about it,” Martinez said.
Other topics addressed by Washington’s GM or manager before the club hosted the New York Mets in an exhibition game Monday:
Pitcher Jon Lester is back in camp after surgery to remove his thyroid gland on Friday in New York. “He’s sore around where the incision is, so we’re going to take it slow. But we’re going to actually ramp him up,” Martinez said.
2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to start Tuesday against the Astros and throw 30 to 35 pitches in his first appearance since he was shut down in August and had carpal tunnel surgery on his right wrist. Strasburg only threw five innings in 2020. “We just got to keep an eye on him, make sure … that (he) doesn’t do too much,” Martinez said. “So for me, it’s just about watching his innings and building him up to where we feel like when we leave spring training, he’s up to about 85, 90 pitches.”
Rizzo said he and the team’s owners are “in the midst of making decisions on what a time frame would look like” with long-term contracts for right fielder Juan Soto and shortstop Trea Turner. “We certainly have made, and will make, a long-term extension offer to both players some time in the near future,” the GM said.
Washington “probably would not consider” using a six-man rotation to begin the season, Rizzo said. “There’s going to be some creative ways to get these starters through games early on in the season until they’re really comfortable and really built up,” he said.
Reliever Tanner Rainey was scheduled to throw a bullpen session of about 20 pitches on Monday; he has been dealing with a muscle issue near his collarbone. Rizzo and Martinez expect Rainey to be ready for Opening Day.
The D.C. government said last week it has not approved spectators at Nationals Park, but Rizzo said he’s optimistic a solution can be worked out.
The team’s alternate site again will be at Fredericksburg, Virginia.
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