Mesa brings experience to table
Veteran reliever central to club's reshaped bullpen
You'd have to look deeper than humanly comfortable to find any gray in Jose Mesa's curly hair and goatee. Any team employing Mesa, who turns 40 on May 22, would have had to dig deep to believe he had much left after his rough 2005 with Pittsburgh, where he went 2-8 with a 4.76 ERA.
But Mesa had exactly what the Colorado Rockies were seeking -- an experienced face, albeit decorated with laugh lines, to help stabilize what is still a young ballclub.
"It's great, the trust they've shown in me, and it's kind of surprising because the year I had last year with an ERA around 5.00," Mesa said. "It feels good."
Having seen their 2005 season go up in smoke in April and May because their bullpen was burned by its own inexperience, the Rockies decided to start 2006 with experience in relief. Mesa, fellow right-hander Mike DeJean, 35, and left-hander Ray King, 32, were signed this offseason as experienced setup men for lefty Brian Fuentes, who emerged as closer after last season's rough beginning.
The setup trio performed pretty much as advertised during Spring Training with the exception of Mesa, who has been better than he or the club could have expected. In 11 one-inning appearances this spring, he has given up seven hits and thee runs. A better measure of his work is all of the runs and all but two of the hits came in one game.
Mesa's work this spring is more efficient than it was during his strong 2004 with the Pirates and approached the effectiveness he showed while setting the Philadelphia Phillies career record for saves with 111 from 2001 to 2004.
"He's just a model for everybody to emulate, whether it be first-pitch strikes, getting ahead in the count consistently [or] quality of location. And he's averaging eight to 10 pitches an inning," Colorado pitching coach Bob Apodaca said of Mesa, who has never thrown fewer than 15.3 pitches per inning in any season in his career. "He makes his put-away pitch. I'm sure he feels very good about where he is right now."
Mesa spent much of his career going for strikeouts, but climbing to the top of the strike zone sometimes drives up the pitch count because smart hitters tend to foul off those pitches. Understanding that the upper part of the zone can be dangerous at Coors Field, Mesa has been employing his two-seam sinking fastball, his slider and a split-finger changeup -- even slipping in cut fastballs -- to force grounders.
"I'm messing around with my pitches -- I'm a rookie right now, I feel 21-years-old and in my prime," said Mesa, smiling and laughing as if he has climbed the clock of his career and pulled the hands back. "No question about it. I may be the same guy, but I have a different approach. I feel new."
The Rockies' strategy is contrary to modern baseball theory -- that relievers are interchangeable, so it's foolish to pay much for them. This season, Colorado is spending more on Fuentes and his three veteran setup men (a combined $8.3 million) than the top four pitchers in the starting rotation ($7.362 million).
Trusting late-game leads to a bullpen that included as many as five rookies was a costly decision at any price. By April 28, when the Rockies began remaking with veterans, Colorado's bullpen was 1-7 with nine blown saves. The Rockies were 15-35 through the end of May, before experienced relievers such as DeJean, Jay Witasick and Dan Miceli were in place.
"The thing was, people we had talked to over the winter didn't want to come our way," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were able to get three of them halfway through the season. So it wasn't by design."
Signing Mesa, re-signing DeJean and trading for King was a design that the Rockies believe will work. The Rockies believe in bullpen economics to a point. All of the contracts for the veterans have a club option for next year, so the team doesn't have future dollars committed to the bullpen. Some of the younger relievers that struggled early last season rebounded by the end of the year and could be factors in 2006.
But the Rockies believe increasing bullpen experience can help reverse what was becoming a tradition of late-game disappointments -- 40 losses by one or two runs in 2003, and records for blown saves with 34 and relief losses with 39 in 2004 preceded the rough early part of last season.
"Those are tough losses when you lose that many games late," general manager Dan O'Dowd said.
The cumulative effect of the blown games on the confidence of an increasingly young club has become a concern. Enter the experienced bullpen. DeJean has made 262 appearances for the Rockies in his two stints with the club. King helped St. Louis to playoff appearances the last three seasons.
Mesa, with appearances in two World Series with Cleveland in the 1990s, nine total postseason appearances and 319 career saves (most of any pitcher from the Dominican Republic and 12th-most all-time), best exemplifies what the Rockies want. Hurdle noted that Mesa's "heart is not going to flutter" in pressure situations.
Apodaca noted that what Mesa does when not on the mound is almost as big an influence on the club as what he does during games.
"He throws 10 pitches (during the game), and then he's in the conditioning room for an hour and he's just rolling in to the clubhouse when the game is over," Apodaca said. "He's put in that much work to maintain his body. He doesn't take his body for granted. That's why he's so good. That's why he's had longevity."
Mesa struggled as the Pirates' closer late last season and was moved to a setup role in early September. But Mesa gave up just one run in four setup appearances, and O'Dowd said the Rockies scouted all of his games in that role and liked what they saw.
Mesa could be used in closing situations at times that Hurdle wants to reduce Fuentes' workload, but Mesa has no designs on usurping Fuentes.
"I don't have to think about that, because Brian Fuentes is a good closer and he did well for them last year," Mesa said. "I can help out the young guys, but I know that there are good pitchers here. I believe we can win."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.