From Saddness to Optomism – The Rockies Rotation Changes from July 2011 to Today

In baseball terms, 2.5 years ago was the saddest day for me as a Rockies fan. It was the day that, unbelievably, after pouring out millions in the off-season to Tulo and CarGo, the Rockies chose to trade away their first and only ace in history, Ubaldo Jiminez. We were told then it was a combination of factors – first, that the ability to sign Ubaldo was not there (something proven out this year by the Indians despite the benefit of the draft rule compensation). Second, we were told, just half a season after the Rockies nearly made the playoffs in 2010 (remember the run and then then pancake at the end of 2010), that this team didn’t have the pitching talent to enable them to compete for the playoffs going forward. The failures of Greg Reynolds, #1 in 2008 (#2 overall which still makes me frown) and the setbacks to Tyler Matzek (treating homeplate like Chicago in Planes, Trains and Automobiles). So in one foul swoop, the team added two former #1s from Cleveland, Alex White who had already had several successful starts for the Indians earlier that season, and Drew Pomeranz, a big power lefty that everyone had high hopes for both in Colorado and Cleveland, and which many believed was too expensive by himself to trade for Ubaldo. This was of course just months after Jorge De La Rosa had TJ surgery, sadly just after the Rockies had surprisingly been able to sign him back during Free Agency. Then in the off-season, Chris Ianetta, highly valued catcher, the first ever developed by the team, was dealt for some 11 game loser named Chatwood from the Anaheim Angels. And then the one of the worst years in history of MLB pithing occurred, creating in 2012 the perspective the Rockies might be the only team in worse shape than the Houston Astros, which considering they were busy trying to win the contract for the Universal Studies theme park version of Major Leagues, failing only when their actual payroll was lower than that Cleveland team in real 2012 dollars. But, as Houston is showing since they went that direction, a roster or farm system can be re-made very quickly with good drafting, smart trades and a lot of luck, good and bad for both you and another team.

 

Nineteen games into the season and we have gotten the chance to see all of our expected starting pitchers save Chacin, who threw another rehab start on Saturday night. Leaving aside the plight of Jorge De La Rosa, who is both over 30 and likely not part of the long-term plans of the team (even a re-sign will likely be a 2 year deal).  What has been very interesting is to look at the how well the rotation has pitched and more importantly, the youth of this rotation. Saturday night saw the best start of Jordan Lyles Rockies career (and among his best period). So, without even looking at the kids at Colorado Springs and Tulsa, looking at the Rockies rotation, especially when compared to some of the rotations this team has put together over the years, the youth and upside of this rotation group is something to get excited about not just in 2014 but for a few years to come.

Brett Anderson – Age 26, entering Sixth Year of Experience (only 87 total games appeared)

Sometimes failures make a guy available that you could never get ahold of in the “real world.” Anderson has of course the world’s worst injury bug. One can only assume his trainer is Mr. Bean and that the AFLAC duck runs and hides from his shadow. But even with that being said, Anderson started his big league career in 2009, throwing 30 starts, 175.1IP, and a decent 4.06 ERA, at age 21.  Granted Oakland isn’t Coors, but still those are very good numbers for any 21 year-old, especially a lefty. Since then he has never thrown more than 19 starts, but his ERA has fallen to his career level of 3.81. He was a 2nd round pick of the DBacks in 2006 out of high school, and has a team option for 2015 for around $8million. In 2009 we was rated the 7th highest prospect.  Yes, he is hurt again. But he has given the Rockies good pitching before the injury and without being a serious arm injury, there is no reason to assume he won’t get back to throwing at least as well as he did before the injury. He will never be the #1 he could have been before the injury bug, but at age 26, he can still be at least a #3 and if healthy and pitches for the Rockies in 2015, a #2. Not a bad piece that the Rockies would not have been able to get even last year for Drew Pomeranz (will speak of him in a minute). And if the trade had been talked about after the raft of injuries suffered by Oakland (leading them to us Sonny Gray as their opening day starter), there is no way he gets even talked about. Timing is everything.

Tyler Chatwood – Age 24, Fourth Year of Experience (only 69 total games appeared)

Tyler was a 2nd round pick of the Angles in 2008, was rated the #2 in Angles prospects going into 2010, and Baseball America #76 rated in 2010 as well. He was rated as the best curveball in the Angels system before joining their ration at just 21 in 2011. His prospect rating was held back not because of actual stuff or performance in the minors, but because he does not have the build for a high-end starter, at his 6’ 185lb stature.  All he did in 2011 was appear in 27 and start in 25 games as a 21 year-old, going only 6-11 but with a 4.75 ERA. He was not then nor is he now a high K pitcher, but his good control, low HR rate, and high GO rate pointed him to being solid piece for the Angels going forward. But again luck and situations changed. The problem was that the Angels has major issues at catcher, with starter Jeff Mathis hitting .174 with only 3 HR, and the Rockies with a burgeoning depth at the position, dealt the very popular Chris Ianetta (who hit a walk-off earlier this week thrown by…Drew Pomeranz), who while still not Yodi Molina, in 2012 gave them .240, 9HR, and a .730 OPS, even as Tyler was experiencing the 2012 Coors Field explosion. The Angels figured they had enough pitching depth, and that having a good bat, good gaming catcher was more than worth the trade of an undersized starter. But since then, Tyler has been everything the Rockies wanted from him and want from all their guys going forward. Tyler has become a ground-ball machine, keeping this pitch counts low, and if he can avoid being too good an athlete, will continue to be the a genuine #3 who on any given night can totally shut down offenses even at Coors and keep his club in the game. Good news is he doesn’t become arbitration eligible til after 2015 and a FA until 2018. It already seems Tyler has been in the big forever (same age starting as Anderson), so experience without age.  Tyler probably doesn’t have upside beyond a #3, but a group of #3s, young ones especially, can create a great rotation in reality. Tyler’s “struggles” in 2011 and the Coors Field fiasco of  2012 didn’t panic the Rockies. They knew they had something and now Tyler is a key part of the rotation going forward.

Juan Nicasio – Age 27, fourth Year of Experience (total apperarence just 58 games)

Juan Nicasio is another one of those guys who seems like he has already been pitching for the Rockies forever, but because the hideous neck and then knee injuries, has only toed the bump 58 games in those four years. And none of those injuries of course was due to arms or shoulders. Juan was the #8 prospect in the Rockies organization in 2010, but never made a top 100 list elsewhere, but was the California League #9 prospect in that 2010 year. The knock on Juan was command and secondary pitches. Most scouts saw him as a potentially great bullpen arm, and that he could reach that as soon as possible. The Rockies resolutely have believed that he could be a starter and be value at that role. Over the four years we have seen periods of sharp pitching, usually though only the first two times through a lineup. The team believed that his further development had been due in part to the lack of healthy and confident pitching setup with the knee and neck. So far in 2014 the Rockies have seen the Juan Nicasio that they always believed he could be. With the slider control added to the nice fastball with movement, and now a splitter he can use a changeup and out-pitch. At 27, Juan is pretty much who he is going to be aside from command and maybe another pitch. Or is he? Can I guy with still such low mileage find that next level as he matures? For right now he makes a great #5 at least. This is his first year of arbitration, earning $2 million this year with Free Agency still far off in 2018. A nice bit of control for a pitcher who, given his dearth of actual game experience, is more like a 23 or 24 year-old than a 27.

Franklin Morales – Age 28, 8th year of Experience (total appearance just 199, 28 starts))

Franklin probably doesn’t belong on this list, because we remember him being a key part of the 2007 WS team, but he just turned 28, has not gotten a lot of mileage on his arm, but becomes a Free Agent in 2015. He is pitching this year for less than Nicasio financially. Now, we all know that Franklin has never taken the reins of the horse as a starter and though he had some good stints as  a closer including down the stretch in 2009 (why again did Jim Tracy move back to Huston Street) and a reliever in Boston in 2011 and 2012. This team didn’t risk a lot to get Franklin, but they traded for him with the idea of giving him the change to start, not just head to the pen. In 3 starts this year he should have had at least 2 wins, and in 18.2IP has 14Ks. Franklin could very well be a key piece of this team not just in 2014 but 2015 as well, especially if the work that turned Jorge DLR to a twice 16 game winner can help Franklin to continue to refine his pitches, trust them, move in and out, and grab a rotation spot going forward. One of the things that startled me was that Franklin was the Rockies #3 prospect in 2005, #2 in 2006, and #1 in 2007, and was Baseball America’s #30 in 2006 and #8 in 2007! Scouts saw a lot in Franklin, and sometimes it just takes guys a while to “get it.” Especially guys with big stuff but questionable command. The poster boy for me is Cliff Lee, #30 for BA in 2002 but it was 2008 until it actually happened, when was 29. Not saying that Frankie is about to become Cliff Lee, just that at 28 Frankie is still young and the potential is still there. We saw some of that in San Diego last week. Whether this is a new long-term trajectory….well, better to be asking this about a guy still 28 rather than 32.

Jordan Lyles – Age 23, 4th Year of Experience (3 years back and forth to minors – 75 Games, 68 Starts)

Earlier I mentioned the role of injuries, timing and team situations can cause player movements that would never happen if things stayed “normal.” If Brett Anderson pitched 30 starts in 2013 he isn’t traded for Drew Pomeranz. Without Jeff Mathis being the worst catcher in baseball, no Tyler Chatwood. And then there is Lyles. Coming up he was highly rated almost immediately, especially after Houston surprised everyone by getting him to skip college to head to the minors. A sandwich pick in 2008 Lyles impressed early, not just because of his performance but because of his athleticism and poise. He becomes arbitration eligible in 2015 thanks to his quick arrival in Houston, but is not a Free Agent til 2018.  He was rated the #1 prospect in 2010 and the #91 and #42 Baseball America prospects in 09 and 10 (in 2011 other rating groups put him in the top 25).  Lyles was topping out in the 93-94 range, and at that age scouts saw the change to gain more on the fastball, but with good control and an easily expected 90-91 fastball. In 2010 he was rated the best slider, changeup and control in the Astros system. Now that says a lot about the Astros farm system at the time, when it was rated near the bottom. He was rushed and rushed quickly to the Show, and it hurt him. Bad defense, back game-calling, no offensive support, throwing in the band-box of Minute Maid Park. These are thing we can all recognize from our days of watching kids come up to Colorado and see their careers quickly destroyed. Over the next few years because of poor performance he stopped being looked at as a top prospect he was before his clock started in Houston. While few but the most optimistic saw him as a future ace, he was seen as having a real chance to be a #2, and a solid #3. If the Rox had called in 2012 or even opening day 2013 and tried to trade Dexter Fowler for Lyles, Houston laughs their heads off before hanging-up. But not only did the Rockies get Lyles, they managed to get a facsimile of Dexter in Brandon Barnes and saved millions in the process.  As we think about Drew Pomeranz, this is the same potential we face if his career recovers in Oakland, a good park for his stuff. Pomeranz went from being seen as a potential #2 or maybe #1, but after 2.5 years in Denver left without command, confidence, or even much of a repertoire. The Anderson trade may still haunt the team,  but it had to happen for both sides.

Jhoulys Chacin – Age 26, about to start 6th year of Major League experience (total 113 Games, 98 Starts)

Chacin is arguably the best developed starter in the team’s history. He carries with him into this year a career ERA of 3.61, has responded well to challenges about this health, physical, and mental approach.  Chacin came to the bigs as a major strike-out pitcher, averaging 9/9 in first full year, while keeping walks to just 4/9. Last year appeared to be the breakout year, as he not only won 14 games, a 3.47 ERA, he became the “go-to” pitcher for this team (yes, even as DLR was winning 16 games). It can be argued that the team’s hot start halted when Chacin was to be put on the DL, despite his not wanting to go. He was never quite as dominate after the stint on the DL, but he still, along with DLR provided and Tyler Chatwood provided the best 1-2-3 in team history (granted, not like comparing the Dodgers, Braves, or just Walter Johnson pitching for the Sens, but it counted). Chacin, was ranked as highly as the #4 best prospect with the Rockies and as high #46 overall in BA rankings.  Sadly we are already near the end of Chacin’s expected time with the team, as his FA period begins in 2016. But with 2014 and 2015 still to go, he should continue to provide this team a large number of quality starts before his time is over.

 

So, let us take a look at what this team has put together in its starting group

26 year-old lefty, FA 2015/6, Formerly possible #1, likely #2

24 year-old righty, FA 2018, Formerly possibly #2 or #3, likely #3

27 year-old righty, FA 2017, never highly rated but moved too quickly thru minors, forecasted #3 or #4

28 year-old lefty, FA 2015, formerly possibly #1, likely #4-#5

23 year-old righty, FA 2017, Formerly possibly #2-3, likely #3-5

25 year-old righty, FA 2016, Formerly possibly #2-3, lilkely #2 outside shot a #1

Two and half years after being told this team had no arms to compete and that the future was unpromising to say the least, this is the rotation the team has to compete in the NL West now. This team is now able to throw-out, at least over the next two years, 5 (or 6 if Franklin is re-signed) pitchers, all under 30, all of who have been highly rated by the experts, and all of whom, aside From Lyles, have had success in the major leagues. This is a young, talented group, some of whom have had injury issues, under-performance, and general challenges. But, consider that there are not the usual lists of names of non-prospects, never-beens, fill-ins, and overseas recruits that this team has had to, for most of its history, fill-out the rotation each year. The 2007 Rockies got some surprising performances. The 2009 rotation had a great year. The 2010 year was much about Ubaldo and then last year was the best 1-3 returns in team history. But never in team’s history has this much talent, still this young, been brought together, and it should be added, with relative low costs in terms of payroll and what was used to get them here.

Now, we are all getting excited about the accumulation of talent at the two high minor levels.  Rightly so! Here we see a collection of former #1s and break-out prospects. This is what we are looking at:

Jon Grey – Age 22 – AA – Former #1 2013

Eddie Butler – Age 23 – AA – Former Supp #1 2012

Daniel Winkler – Age 24 – AA – Former #20 round pick, breakout prospect for 2014

Tyler Anderson – Age 24 – AA – Former #1 2011

Christian Friedrich – Age 26 – AAA – Former #1 2008

Tyler Matzek – Age 23 – AAA – Former #1 2009

 

Yes, there is a lot of talent on the farm that is within two years of being part of this rotation and any of which could come up and pick-up a spot start if a double-header or injuries forced things. And any of these guys would bring interest from fans to see if they are part of the future. Aside from Friedrich, whose career is clearly treading waters due to his back issues, but he can at least point to having gotten big-league hitters out in 2012.

So, we go back in time to July 20, 2011. The Ubaldo trade was a bust, for both sides. The lack of pitching depth in the minors has been replaced by a good collection of real talent. And the line we hear that the Rockies have no plans…well, looks like they have done a pretty good job of developing a plan from here.

Back in 2011, Dan O’Dowd was berated, even by me (and I am on record as thinking he is a good GM for this team), for turning a team that many thought would content in 2011 and putting them in a death spiral. Teams cannot control injuries and under-performance. Yes, there were bad draft picks – every team makes them. Yes, development was really slowed, but they went out and brought in Mark Wiley to take the reins of the pitching development. We have seen this already to start to show promise.

One interesting fact in looking at all these names. The Rockies have, for years now, avoided going after high-school pitching prospects in the first round. Historically it probably made a lot of sense. High school pitchers usually had long-lead times, and too much room for going off the rails. Tyler Matzek has been case study #1 on this issue. What if in 2008 they risk the #2 for high schooler Clayton Kershaw rather than college arm Greg Reynolds? Too much risk?  Too much trust in the college system in getting pitchers ready to the challenges of pitching at Coors. Perhaps.

But the two of the three biggest trades these past few years have seen the Rockies grab high-school pitchers who had already shown quick learning and development. Chatwood and Lyles both are great athletes who have shown a lot of poise and maturity. Just the kind of pitchers this team wants. By dealing from strength elsewhere in the farm system to grab these kind of high school pitchers, gives them the advantage of allowing other teams to bear the risk of developing the high-risk, high-reward high school arms.

So, on April 20, 2014, the team should be excited about where their current rotation is performance wise. It should be overwhelmed by what is happening in the minors. We know things can change quickly – injuries, lack of performance, or just development stops. But looking at the current group under 30 and those in the minors, it seem like decades since that end of July 2011 trade day. Thankfully!

 

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