A look at the Rockies’ plans with Hawkins and Brothers, plus notes on batting and pitching pursuits
The Rockies’ pursuit of veteran right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, which resulted in a one-year, $2.5 million guarantee that will become official once Hawkins passes a physical, can be seen in an odd way as a compliment to young lefty Rex Brothers, who served capably as closer when veteran Rafael Betancourt was injured.
Brothers, who turns 26 on Dec. 18, went 19-of-21 on save chances and finished with a 1.74 ERA last season. At times he struggled putting away hitters early in innings but he still struck out 76 (against 36 walks) in 67 1/3 innings. It certainly is a signal that he could become even more effective.
But before Betancourt went through a right groin strain, an appendectomy and finally a season-ending elbow injury, many of Betancourt’s save opportunities came partly because of Brothers’ effectiveness as a setup man. Brothers’ club-record 30-inning scoreless streak, which covered 32 games, ran from April 10 to June 27. Only the final nine games of the streak came while he was in the closer role.
As the season progressed, several games ended with Brothers not even taking the mound, because the middle relief and setup men pitched away the lead. It’s the old sabermetric argument: Why have the best option sitting in the bullpen while lesser pitchers blow it?
Hawkins ended up an effective closer for the Mets late last season. He earned all 12 of his saves and blew just one from Aug. 6 to season’s end. He struck out 18 against one walk and held opponents to a .222 batting average in those 23 appearances. At 41, he still throws hard enough and deceptively enough to be trusted with the final inning. The Rockies believe if he holds the closer job, it frees them to use Brothers when the game is tight before the ninth. And if plans change and Brothers at some point ends up the closer — which has been his plan his entire career — Hawkins gives them an attractive option in a setup role.
The Rockies still want to shore up the setup roles through free agency. Signing Hawkins as closer likely takes them out of the chase for Brian Wilson and Grant Balfour, who could be invited to pitch the ninth inning by another club. But a hard throwers such as Jesse Crain, Joe Smith or Jose Veras could further fill the Rockies’ needs.
The attempt to load up the back of the bullpen makes for intriguing competition and decisions when it comes to holdovers from last season. The club likes the 96 mph-plus fastball that righty Chad Bettis brought last season when used in relief, and will keep him there rather than revisit him in the rotation. They tested righty Adam Ottavino in late innings and there were some encouraging numbers, such as a 2.00 ERA at Coors Field. Righty Mitchell Boggs finished up with the Rockies after struggling mightily with the Cardinals when forced into the closer role, and the club is having internal discussions about returning him to a starter role. Boggs started 15 of his first 24 big-league appearances when breaking in with the Cards in 2008 and 2009.
The Rockies also continue to be in the market for starting pitching, although it’s unclear exactly where they’ll look. They’re often leery of accomplishment elsewhere because of the Mike Hampton-Denny Neagle experiment a few years back, but Tim Hudson profiled well. However, Hudson decided to take his passion and intensity to the NL West with the Giants.
Left-handed hitting outfielder-first baseman James Loney continues to be a prime candidate for the corner bat the Rockies seek. Corey Hart, coming off a knee injury, told a satellite radio audience on Tuesday that the Rockies, Red Sox and his former team, the Brewers, have checked in with him. Not much will be known until next month, when he is cleared for full activity. What isn’t clear is how strongly the Rockies are pursuing first baseman Mike Napoli, whose ability to make a pitcher work would fit nicely at first base. However, with his 2013 team, the World Series champion Red Sox, and others in the mix, the Rockies may drop out of the bidding the way they did with catcher Carlos Ruiz, who re-signed with the Phillies on Monday.
– Thomas Harding