The Future of the Rockies – A Series About What Is Needed to Compete in the West in the Future: Part 1 Starting Pitching

The 2016 season is…well, near.  I love Spring Training, where names that will never reach the Major Leagues can have their name on the top of MLB.com. There are a lot of things that look great (or awful) in Spring Training. Never pay attention to stats the first three weeks of the Spring, but the last week begins to give us a feel for the season.

 

But of course, we already know that the Rox are not going anywhere in 2016. This team is on the cusp of its future. Strangely, as important as the pitching development is…and it is important…the future of the moribund offense is just as important. Last year they had two players in a neck-and-neck race with the league MVP for the homer title and a career year from DJ and a great season of stolen bases from Charlie Blackmon and…still were outgunned at every turn, home and away.

 

But 2016 could be a version of 2006, but in reverse. That year they started strong but faded as the year went along as young players hit their wall and the lack of depth in pitching and positon player caught up to them. I think 2016 could be a year where post All-Star break they play over .500 baseball. I have real high hopes for 2017, like a lot of us (the Dodgers have a great farm system but their pitching has question marks, and the Dodgers and Giants spent big on pitching that is over 30…never a good idea). But for the Rox to win the West, something they are yet to do in 20+ years, they need not just a solid 25 heading north at the start of the season, but depth all the way around. So here is my list of what the team needs to be a real contender for the West and for them to maintain success. This list takes into account the known pitching issues at Coors, the impact of elevation on recovery time, and the simple fact that some players have good years some bad and some get hurt.

 

 

Starting Pitching

 

I was reading an article on minor league baseball about Nolan and the need of the Rox to sign him up to a long-term deal because he is getting more expensive every day. Obviously. And I am sure that Bridich and Nolan’s new agent are having those discussions regularly. But in the comment section one of the commentators say, “And the Rockies have zero or close to it pitching prospects.” Now, fine, not everyone follows a team as closely as we do. But all it would have taken was a cursory look at the fact that most Top 100 lists have both Jon Gray and Jeff Hoffman on that list, and most lists of the Rox top 10 prospects also include Kyle Freeland and sometimes Miguel Castro and/or Antonio Senzatela. So this team has pitching prospects, many are starters, and the future has the potential to be bright.

 

But the team doesn’t need just numbers, it needs production from those starters. A few years ago Eddie Butler was in a number of top 25 and top 50 prospect lists. Whether he was tinkered with by the former administration (specifically Bill Geivett), was rushed, or after his shoulder injury never got right we don’t know. Butler’s future? Could be bullpen. Or, as we see with a lot of young pitchers, it takes until years 3 or 4 to actually have it all click (ask the Cubs about some guy named Jake Arietta).

 

So they need depth and success. But how much? Ideally the Rox would have a middle of the pack starting rotation (like the Royals the past two years), with an explosive offensive and a solid bullpen. That means they don’t need to load up on Kershaw, Greinke and Cole. That would be nice though. So here is what I see on the starting front.

 

Total Depth needed year-to-year: 8 starters (not including one-day starters due to double-headers or short-term injury situations).

 

The bottom 3 of those are obviously guys who serve either in the bullpen as long-men or are at AAA.

 

The make-up of the top 8 though is important. I will use ERA+ as my measuring tool to try and capture the level of ability and performance.

 

#1 Starter – ERA + of 125-135 range – This is not an impossible level. Guys like Clayton Kershaw are in the 170s to 190s. John Lackey was 10th last year with a 143. The Rox definitely have the talent in their system to get a 135. In 2011 and 2013 Jorge De La Rosa was that kind of pitcher, with an ERA+ of 130 and 128. The greatest pitcher (talent wise) the team produced, Ubaldo Jimenez had years of 161 and 135 in 2010 and 2009, so we have seen it here. Could a Rockies pitcher (a Gray or Hoffman or even a Freeland) get to that mark or better? Yes. Remember, it factors in ballpark. But this #1 guy has to be able to pitch between 185 and 200 innings. The Rox are not going to have starters over 200 innings due to the impact of altitude recovery and the fact that there are going to be a couple of games every year where even your #1 gets knocked out in the 4th at Coors, by pitch count if nothing else.

 

#2 Starter – ERA + of 115-125 range – This is a guy who competes and gives you a better than average chance to win and the other guys don’t want to face as part of a weekend series. Jhoulys Chacin gave the Rox a 126 back in 2011. This type of pitcher gives you, like your #1, around 185-200 innings. The Rox prototypical pitcher that fits this bill is either De La Rosa (in 2015) and Jeff Francis in 2006 and 2007 (118 and 114).

 

#3 Starter – ERA + of 105-110 range – When first round draft picks are labelled with the ceiling of #3 starter I feel bad for them. But #3s are essential for success. And they cannot be league average guys. They have to be better, not great, but better than the league. You are looking for 175-185 innings from a Rox #3 starter. Brett Anderson was that for the 2009 As. Juan Nicasio’s rookie campagin in 2011 is a decent example (110 ERA+, 4.14 ERA). The Rox have a lot of guys who could profile into this spot. I think this is what the Rox were hoping for out of Kyle Kendrick last year (nice thought…he was released by the Braves over the weekend). The perfect model of this guy is former Rockie Jason Hammel, who had a 105 ERA+ last year for the Cubs, threw 31 starts and 170.2 innings. Hammel’s 2009 campaign with the Rox was another example with a 110 ERA+, 4.33 ERA, 176.2 innings over 30 starts.

 

#4 Starter – ERA + of 95-105 – Here I am simply being realistic about Rockie’s development of pitchers (how much does the Elephant of Coors Field impact them back in AA or A+) and altitude’s impact on recovery. Ideally you want a guy over 105 still at your #4 spot. In the Rox greatest pitching year ever, 2009, all 5 of the team’s primary starters were over 108. So, this is not ideal. But you want a guy who doesn’t get you blown-out, sets you up to win a majority of his starts and also eats around 170 innings. Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs last year  gave them an ERA+ of 99 and 180 innings. Ideally this is a guy who still has upside in his career but is still gaining altitude. I think the Rox hoped that Tyler Anderson could be that guy in 2016 or 2017 but he has the worst luck this side of Tyler Chatwood. Since the Rox are looking to replicate the Royals success (their high man in ERA+ among starters was Chris Young at 135 but he had only 18 starts, most of their staff was between 90 and 115), last year’s #4 starter is a good comp – Danny Duffy. Duffy is 26 year-old lefty with some upside still there and had an ERA+ of 101 last year in 24 starts. Again, this rotation doesn’t have to be the Mets. It needs to be solid. And a good #4 is key to that.

 

#5 Starter – ERA+ of 90-100 – The Rockies to compete cannot give the ball every 5th day to a starter who is substantially worse than league average. 90 has to be the bottom end of this range. With the chance to skip days and the like you see this guy going 25 starts, around 150 innings and who simply gives you a toss-up to win every day he goes out there. He can’t get blown out in too many starts for the damage it does to the bullpen, but he also doesn’t have to keep it 3-2 when he hands the ball off in the 7th. The Royals survived last year with the incredibly bad Jeremy Guthrie as their #5, with an ERA+70, but he also ate nearly 150 innings and had a break-even W/L record. The Cubs made it to the NLCS with a #5 slot filled by a combination of Travis Wood and Dan Haren whose ERA+ was 98 and 102 respectively. This is the spot where you might pick up a veteran, more in the Wood level of his career, to fill that slot, give some additional help to the staff and allow you to keep your younger starters in AA and AAA to refine their game.

 

#6 Starter – ERA+ of 85-100 – Injuries are going to happen. No team it seems trots out the same 5 for a whole season. I have chosen to focus only 8 deep because those one game emergency starters (the Marc Brownsens of the world) are fillers when you don’t want to break-up the developmental pattern of younger pitchers. Some argue your #6 should be a guy with former MLB experience who is pitching in your farm system expressly hoping for an injury that will open a slot. Rich Hill whose career slid off a mountain due to injuries provided that for Boston last year down the stretch giving them 4 starts of 29 innings and an ERA of 1.55 (ERA+ of 280). I assumed last year this would be John Lannen but he never got the call. The other alternative here is a career minor leaguer who you are intrigued with enough to give them a shot. I give you Yohan Flande, whose ERA+ was 99 for the Rox last year. So a veteran, a career minor leaguer or your top prospect if he is ready.

 

#7 and #8 Starter – ERA+ of 80-90 – This is realism time. If this pitcher starts more than 5-7 games for you the chances you compete are getting pretty slim. In the 2007 season Taylor Bucholz played this role, giving them 8 starts after Rodrigo Lopez blew out his elbow. He was a surprise but injuries ended his career as well. That season his ERA+ was 114. You would love that kind of occurrence, but avoiding the bottom falling out – a 70-80 ERA+ where you not only lose those games but suck up the innings in your bullpen is disastrous to a great season. In 2010 the Rox gave 8 starts to Esmil Rogers who promptly put up an ERA+ of 76 and another 8 starts to Greg Smith who couldn’t even go an average of 5 innings on the way to his ERA+ of 75. The Rox were very close to a playoff team that year. The difference in the end came down to their poor performance from their #7 and #8 starters. The hope is that in these slots you have youngsters ready for the stage and this is their chance to help out the team without adding too many more innings to their arms or hurting their development. In 2007 the Rox brought up a kid named Franklin Morales in this spot and he posted an ERA+ of 141 in his 8 starts (which also did average under 5 innings, though more to protect his innings count than anything).

 

So there is what I think the Rox need from a starting rotation to compete to win the National League West or at least make the playoffs. Clearly everyone things the team is at least a year away from doing this, with 2017 and 2018 years that look like the talent will be ready. In an ideal world the 2017 starting rotation would look like

 

#1 Jon Grey

#2 Chad Bettis

#3 Jeff Hoffman

#4 Kyle Freeland

#5 Tyler Anderson

#6 Tyler Chatwood

#7 Harrison Musgrave (don’t sleep on the big lefty who last year had a 2.99 ERA and 136Ks in 145 innings in High A and AA. In AA where he was about 1.5 years younger than average player he had 53Ks in 56 innings. A potential #3 starter in the future.

#8 Antonio Senzetela (a kid compared by some to Chacin but who I suspect they will give an extra year to so he can perfect his change-up).

 

That list is missing a few names. First, if I were Jeff Bridich there is no way I do not bring back Jorge De La Rosa in 2017-2018 on another 2-year deal. Even if he is traded mid-year. He loves it here, is comfortable here, will not break the bank, and provides what they always say they need, veteran leadership for a young rotation. And he wins. Second, Eddie Butler. There is a ton of talent in that arm. He just needs to figure it out, get the ball down in the strike zone again and control the wildness. And third, Tyler Matzek. I am about the biggest Tyler Matzek fan around. In 2014 he played the role of the #6 guy and quite honestly had the best rookie season of any Rockies pitcher. I also really identify with his struggles, plagued by my own mental health issues and a nearly 15 year-old daughter who gets anxiety as he describes it so badly we have to keep her home days from school. I want to see Tyler make it back. If he does, he has as much talent as any of the guys on the list save maybe Hoffman and Gray. The Rox need a break, after having had a long stream of snake eyes on every role every year since 2009. Seeing a bounce back from Tyler and Eddie would go a long way to righting the ship for the long haul.

 

 

So that is my projection for the starters that the Rox need to battle for the West in coming years. For those who think about the Dbacks and Giants and their off-season signings remember, Grienke is now 32, Shelby Miller has never put it all together, Johnny Cueto did not look good after his trade last year and is now over 30 and Jeff Smardjza (oh, heck, Shark) just seems like one of those guys with more hype and tools than performance (though the Giants might be the team to finally tap into all the talent). The West is going to be wide open the next few years. Will the Rox have enough starters to compete?

 

Next Up: The Future of a Winning Relief Corp

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