Motte, Qualls healthy, ready for bullpen battle

Motte, Qualls healthy, ready for bullpen battle

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One source of Rockies optimism is the offseason bullpen beef-up. But caution: Right-handers Jason Motte and Chad Qualls know free-agent contracts don't always pay off.

Motte and Qualls want to show that their signings to two-year deals can work the second time around.

Motte missed the first 44 games, then 46 more just after midseason, because of a right rotator cuff strain -- the residual effect of three years of arm issues since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013. Qualls did a 34-game term on the disabled list when he came down with colitis just after midseason.

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Both arrive healthy, with hopes of holding their spots on a relief staff that has added free agents Greg Holland and Mike Dunn, and of helping a bullpen that posted a Major League-worst 5.13 ERA last season -- partly because of its health-related struggles.

Motte, under a two-year, $10 million contract, was 0-1 with a 4.94 ERA in just 30 games. Qualls, signed for two years and $6 million, was 2-0 with a 5.23 ERA in 44 games. Motte, 34, and Qualls, 38, will make a combined $8.75 million this season.

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"Anytime you're hurt, it's frustrating," said Motte, who earned a National League-leading 42 saves with the Cardinals in 2012 but suffered the elbow injury the following spring. "Last year, to be hurt twice is frustrating. So to have a normal offseason feels good. Even last year, the four or five games I pitched in September was nice. To be able to do that and go into the offseason healthy was definitely good. I come into spring ready to go."

After his colitis bout, Qualls appeared in eight games from Aug. 20 to season's end.

"It was the offseason, about a month or so ago, when I started to really feel a lot better," Qualls said. "I've gone off the mound five or six times. I'm excited this Spring Training. I've worked pretty hard this offseason, long-tossed a lot more and did a lot more shoulder stuff to get my strength up."

Injuries and inexperience left the Rockies struggling to fill relief roles last year. But it could be a crowded situation if all stay healthy this spring.

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In addition to Holland and Dunn, righty Adam Ottavino and lefty Jake McGee have key roles, lefty Chris Rusin and righty Jordan Lyles are being counted on and are out of Minor League options. That's six spots in an eight-man bullpen.

Righty Carlos Estevez had his moments last year as a rookie, and righty Scott Oberg has recovered from blood clots in his forearm that shortened his 2016 season. Righty Jairo Diaz, who had Tommy John surgery last spring, likely won't be ready until May but could fight his way into the mix. As is the case everywhere, camp is full of prospects.

"Every single year there's a Draft in June and they're picking young kids that are throwing harder," Motte said. "Even signing different guys -- having Dunn here, having Holland here along with some of the other guys that they have in that bullpen, it makes us better. You want to them do well and in turn you want to do better, and you end up making the bullpen better. For me it's being healthy."

So Motte and Qualls must forge on, and keep, their spots. Both will have to be better at Coors Field. The injuries and the toll going in and out of altitude might have had something to do with it, but they'll have to improve on a 7.43 home ERA for Qualls and an 8.31 for Motte.

"Both these guys have a lot of pride in their performance," said Rockies manager Bud Black -- who managed Qualls with the Padres in 2011 and saw him go 6-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 77 games. "Last year it didn't work out, mainly because they were physically not where they needed to be, which is unfortunate. Offseason of work, clean bill of health, these guys have had success in the big leagues."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.