The Rockies are evaluating righties Justin Lawrence and Tyler Kinley as potential closing options in camp, writes Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. Both pitchers held the ninth inning at points last season and are battling for the job to open this year.
Colorado began last year with Pierce Johnson in the closing role. Johnson struggled and was bumped from the ninth inning before he was traded to Atlanta. Lawrence stepped into the role in June. He pitched well through the end of July but hit a skid in August, allowing 10 runs in 8 2/3 innings. Colorado activated Kinley from the injured list in August, the culmination of a year-long recovery from elbow surgery. Skipper Bud Black gave Kinley the ninth inning for the season’s final few weeks.
Despite the shaky finish, Lawrence is coming off the best season of his career. He logged a personal-high 75 innings and turned in a 3.72 ERA. He pairs a mid-90s sinker with a mid-80s slider, against which opponents hit only .149 last season. Lawrence has the raw stuff to hold a late-inning job, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll throw enough strikes to stick in the ninth.
Last season’s 11% walk rate was the best of his career but remains well higher than the league average. Lawrence’s low arm slot could also pose a platoon issue, as left-handed batters can pick up the ball early in his delivery. Southpaws didn’t have much success against him last season, hitting .221/.336/.361 in 149 plate appearances. Lawrence’s strikeout and walk profile was far better against righties, though. He fanned 27.7% and walked 10.2% of right-handed opponents; against lefties, those numbers sat at 19.5% and 12.1%, respectively.
Kinley has more major league experience than Lawrence, but he’d never closed until last fall. His results last season weren’t great. After returning from surgery, he tossed 16 1/3 innings of 11-run ball. His velocity came back stronger than ever, giving reason for optimism that he can find his pre-injury form after a healthy offseason. Kinley was amidst a breakout first half in 2022, turning in a 0.75 ERA with a 27% strikeout rate over 24 innings before going on the shelf.
Beyond that duo, Saunders indicates that Daniel Bard could work back into the closing picture once he’s healthy. He held the job in 2021-22, combining for 54 saves. Anxiety issues, which Bard has battled throughout his career, unfortunately resurfaced early in the ’23 season. While he was able to get back on the mound, he lost his feel for the strike zone. Bard walked more hitters than he struck out, knocking him down the leverage hierarchy.
His efforts at a rebound campaign are delayed after he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee last week. While he didn’t need to undergo a meniscus repair as the team originally feared, his recovery timeline isn’t quite certain. Thomas Harding of MLB.com writes that Bard hasn’t been cleared to begin working from the mound.
On the other side of the ball, the Rox have most of their expected starting lineup penciled in to open the year. The biggest point of uncertainty is probably right field, although there seems an established frontrunner for that job. Both Saunders and Harding wrote this week that Sean Bouchard has the upper hand on right field early in camp.
Bouchard, who turns 28 in May, has shown well in limited playing time over the past two seasons. The UCLA product debuted midway through the 2022 campaign and hit .297/.454/.500 over 27 games. He had a shot at a starting job last spring but suffered a left biceps rupture that required surgery early in camp. That kept him on the injured list until mid-August. Colorado didn’t promote him back to the big leagues until September.
As he did during his debut season, Bouchard put up strong numbers in a small sample last September. He hit .316/.372/.684 through 43 plate appearances, albeit with 14 strikeouts. Bouchard isn’t regarded as a great defensive outfielder but owns a .276/.356/.492 batting line over six minor league seasons. Carrying over that on-base ability in an extended look against big league pitching would be a welcome boost for a lineup that had a subpar .310 OBP a year ago. Only five teams had a lower on-base mark even though the Rox play half their games at Coors Field.
With Kris Bryant moving to first base and Charlie Blackmon likely to see the bulk of his time at designated hitter, the Rockies are set to turn to Nolan Jones and defensive stalwart Brenton Doyle in the other two outfield spots. Highly-regarded prospect Yanquiel Fernandez is on the 40-man roster but will begin the season in the minors, likely at Double-A. Hunter Goodman is on hand as a first base/corner outfield option, while the Rox have Bradley Zimmer in camp on a non-roster deal.