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Rockies’ inexperienced bullpen has some raw talent, lots of holes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Four things to know about the Rockies’ bullpen as Thursday’s season-opening game against Arizona looms:

1. There are some good, live arms in the ‘pen.

2. The relievers lack experience, meaning growing pains are expected.

3. Personnel changes throughout the season are inevitable.

4. There will be some ugly innings.

The unanswered question: Will the ‘pen be any better than last season?

It could hardly get much worse. Rockies relievers posted a 5.38 ERA, the highest in the majors, fourth-highest in franchise history, and the worst for a full season since 2004 (5.53 ERA). Colorado’s 33 blown saves tied Texas for the most in the majors and were the second-most in franchise history (2004, 34).

Unless there is a late change, Colorado’s bullpen will look like this to start the season:

• Closer: Right-hander Justin Lawrence (3.72 ERA, 75 innings, 11 saves in 18 opportunities in 2023).

• Primary set-up man: Right-hander Tyler Kinley (6.60, 16 2/3, five saves in seven opportunities).

• Late-game reliever: Right-hander Jake Bird (4.33, 89 1/3).

• Lone left-hander: Jalen Beeks (5.95, 42 1/3, with Tampa Bay).

• Long relievers: Right-hander Peter Lambert (3-7, 5.36, 87 1/3, 11 starts) and Rule 5 draft pickup Anthony Molina (5-7, 4.50, 122 innings, 27 starts for Tampa Bay’s Double-A and Triple-A teams).

• Middle relievers: Right-handers Nick Mears (3.72, 19 1/3) and Victor Vodnik (8.31, 8 2/3).

Manager Bud Black’s short assessment of his bullpen: “I like the stuff, but in so many ways, it’s inexperienced. We don’t have a lot of service time out there. I like the arms, I like the mentality, and there is upside potential. (But) a lot of them are unfinished products and there is room to grow.”

Black hopes he doesn’t have to trudge the well-worn path from the dugout to the mound as often as last season, when injuries to the starting rotation and the starters’ ineffectiveness led to an overworked bullpen. Rockies relievers combined to throw 647 innings, the seventh-most relief innings in the majors and the second-most in franchise history, just behind the 2012 Rockies’ 657 innings. It should be recalled that the 2012 season was the season of the failed “piggyback” pitching experiment.

Lawrence is penciled in as the closer. Black likes Lawrence’s nasty stuff and ability to get out of trouble via strikeouts or groundball outs. Black also likes Kinley’s poise and competitiveness and won’t hesitate to use him in the ninth inning.

“When you look at their number of saves, that (saver) role hasn’t been battle-tested,” Black said. “But I do think, mentally and physically, they can handle it. Time will tell.”

Lawrence’s 2023 season was a roller-coaster ride. He was almost unhittable in the early going, posting a 1.47 ERA in 15 appearances. In June, he took over the closer role when Pierce Johnson (later traded to Atlanta) began walking batters. In Lawrence’s first 17 games as the closer, he converted seven of eight save opportunities and put up a 1.86 ERA. But he slumped in the second half of the season, and Kinley took over the ninth-inning role in early September.

In 38 appearances before the All-Star break, Lawrence had a 2.76 ERA and opponents hit just .188 against him. But in the second half, his ERA soared to 5.22 in 31 outings and opponents hit .299.

Colorado’s most dependable reliever is Bird, but Black is hopeful he won’t need to lean on the right-hander as much. Bird pitched 84 2/3 innings of relief last season, tied for the most among major league relievers and the ninth-most all-time by a Rockie. He also pitched five innings as an emergency starter.

“Jake was very reliable and one of the best relief pitchers in the National League,” Black said. “He’s valuable because of the multi-inning aspect, his stuff and his resiliency. He was a horse.”

For now, Beeks is the only lefty in the bullpen, partly because Black wants two long relievers to begin the season and also because Colorado doesn’t have any other lefty relievers ready to fill that role.

Reinforcements should arrive later in the spring when lefty Lucas Gilbreath and right-hander Daniel Bard come off the injured list. Gilbreath, who’s rehabbing from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last March, is making steady progress. He is scheduled to throw live batting practice for the first time on Tuesday.

Bard, Colorado’s primary closer in 2022, had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in mid-February and had PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections in his right forearm during the offseason. Bard plans to throw his first full bullpen session off the mound on Tuesday. He could be ready to rejoin the Rockies at some point in May.

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