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Tampa Bay Rays season preview: Alex Colomé

The Rays will once again ride Colome in the late innings. But for how long?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is somewhat of a surprise that Alex Colome is back with the Rays.

Last year, the Rays played a ton of tight games, and while the wins weren’t always pretty, El Caballo led all of baseball in saves, converting 47 of 53 chances. But with the club in full rebuild mode this year, there figures to be fewer of those and less need for a stud at the back end.

Additionally, his value should be fairly high at the moment, given that he’s still a season away from his first arbitration year and the general market for shutdown relievers is at an all time high. Couple that with the composition of the young-but-unproven stable emerging behind Colomé, and this past offseason seemed like the perfect time to make a deal.

But I don’t have to tell you how goofy this past offseason was. Nothing went according to script.

And so here we are. It’s late March, the rumors have all but dried up, and it looks like Alex Colomé is still going to be in Columbia blue when the real games start.

So let’s reacquaint ourselves with our thoroughbred while he is still ours.

Failed Starter to Bullpen Ace

The nephew of well-traveled former Ray Jesús Colomé, Alex signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in March 2007, and began a steady rise through the Tampa Bay system. He was a top-25 prospect in the system every year from 2008 through 2014 according to Baseball America, peaking at #2 in 2014. After overcoming some elbow injuries early in his career, and a PED suspension for Boldenone at the start of 2014, he was seen as a guy with a middle of the rotation ceiling if he could find a way to tame his unbridled mustang stuff.

Colomé did show flashes of that in 15 opportunities as a starter with the big club in 2014 and 2015, especially in a dominating one-hit, seven-inning performance on June 21, 2015 against Cleveland. But his struggles with consistency eventually led him to the ‘pen by July. It was there that El Caballo found his true calling as a bullpen ace.

Relying less on his power curve, slider, and developing changeup, Colomé leaned heavily on his fastball, and an emerging cutter, as a reliever.

Alex Colome - 2015 pitch usage as a starter
Alex Colome - 2015 pitch usage as a reliever

Colomé also saw a substantial velocity increase in all his pitches, especially the cutter, which he now routinely threw at 90+ mph out of the pen.

Alex Colome - 2015 pitch velocity

The reward? He saw his K-rate spike from 15% to 27%, his walk rate drop from 8.2% to 4.3%, and his FIP plummet from 4.64 to 1.71.

Entering 2016 and now established as the closer and with a pretty good formula for success, Colomé leaned even more on the fastball/cutter combo, throwing them at almost a 50/50 split.

Alex Colome - 2016 pitch usage
Alex Colome - 2016 pitch velocity

It was a resounding success, as he accumulating 37 saves while recording a 1.91 ERA/2.92 FIP along with a ridiculous 93% LOB% during an All-Star season.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2017 saw Alex struggle as a reliever for the first time. Leaning perhaps too much on the cutter — Brooks shows him throwing it almost two-thirds of the time — and perhaps getting exposed by the Rays’ reinvention of bullpen roles that occasionally asked him to go multiple innings, his ERA and FIP both rose into the threes while his K-rate dropped to 20.6% and his walk rate rose to 8.2%.

Alex Colome - 2017 pitch usage
Alex Colome - 2017 pitch velocity

However, most worrisome about Colomé’s cutter last year is not the slightly reduced velocity or how often he threw it. The real red flag was his reduced horizontal movement. After all, the cutter relies on that small late break; without it, a cutter is just a slower fastball.

Alex Colome - career horizontal movement/cutter

There has been chatter a few places this spring about the problems of throwing a cutter. For instance, the Rangers, one of the most cutter-happy teams of 2017, plan to throw a lot fewer cutters. In fact, Matt Moore plans to eliminate it entirely, citing that the more he threw it, the less he found he could manipulate it. Perhaps the movement can be restored to Colomé’s cutter through a mechanical tweak, or he may recover a feel for the pitch just through better pitch distribution. If that fails, it might be time to resurrect his discarded slider or curve.

2018 Role

With the Rays intent on reinventing the bullpen even further in 2018, can we still expect Colomé to be brought into non-traditional closer situations this year?

That’s hard to say.

Last year, Alex was called on to make nine multi-inning appearance. However, only three occurred after May, and none were after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Rays have rounded up other multi-inning guys into the corral almost daily, or so it seems. So there is hope that a return to a better pitch balance along with slotting Colomé into a more traditional closer role — or at least limiting him to one-inning performances — might return him to his elite status.

How long Colomé stays a Ray is anybody’s guess. The paradox is that the better Colomé pitches, the shorter his tenure with the Rays is likely to be. My guess is that, while it was really easy for clubs to sit back and be patient while everybody tied for first all winter, it is going to get more difficult when the games matter and talk radio is filled up not with chatter about which front office is “smarter” but is instead crammed with “You can’t be serious, how is Brandon Morrow our closer ohmygod #firetheo!”

There will also be injuries that require replacements, and the Rays are going to be on every GM’s speed dial for just such an emergency. The odds of Alex Colomé staying with the team all year are slim.

Then again, that’s what we thought going into the offseason.