Every year all around baseball team’s fans fret and fret (and probably most team’s GMs as well) about who will fill their 5th spot in their rotation. Well, I am guessing in Washington these days there is little fretting, and probably in Los Angeles, but the rest of baseball with the 5th spot in their rotation as a blank any many names to fill in that spot.
The thing about the 5th starter is it isn’t a job anyone wants. No one puts “5th Starter” on their business card. No one aspires to the role. And few remain there for long. In most cases the 5th starter is an old guy trying to hang on, or a pitcher better fit for AAAA, or someone the team hopes is heading for the role of the #2 or #3 starter. In most cases the person holding the 5th spot is just a place holder, waiting for someone to come off the DL or a highly thought of prospect to force their hand (or to get past the day when he will qualify for arbitration). The 5th starter is the most talked about job in baseball, but it is the least desired as well.
When we come to our own Colorado Rockies the 5th starter is even more of an issue. Our top 3 of the rotation are pitchers the team has some confidence in. Jorge De La Rosa is the greatest pitcher over the course of a career the team has ever had. Tyler Matzek looked very impressive most of 2014 and has all the potential of the 2nd best pitching prospect in the 2009 draft. Jordan Lyles, still young, has 2 full seasons of baseball behind him and proved he could pitch and win here last year. Those three are solid, though most of us wish they were pitching in spots 2-4 instead of 1-3. We get a little too caught up in those numbers in my opinion since after the first week or two of the season it is as likely as not to see your #4 facing a team’s #1 and your #1 pitching against their #3. The rotation numbers are that big a deal. At least until you get to the playoffs, but if you make the playoffs you can’t be too angry about your team’s rotation. The fact is that #5s can and do beat #1s when their turns come up, though it is rare. Every pitcher has bad days (even Clayton Kershaw), and that means even throwing your best pitcher against another’s worst doesn’t guarantee anything.
But as strong as the team feels about those three guys the rotation needs five. Which bring us to the first of the most important people on the Rockies roster – Jhoulys Chacin.
Chacin came into 2014 with the chance to establish himself as the greatest pitcher in Rockies history by having another 3.50 or so ERA and win 15+ games. He has already had some of the best ERA seasons of any starter in Rockies history, and it seemed like he was about to become a legitimate #1.
It took until the end of player physicals to end that dream. Chacin would end up going through a season of injury and pain, poor results and DL trips, and end up with one of the worst stat lines of a Rockies pitcher in years. I game him an D for the season, because of how important a role he played and how poorly in shape he came into camp. He failed the team in 2014, and may well have cost himself millions in free agency. Needless to say this offseason has been different. He has rehabbed hard, stayed in the states under the team’s watching eyes. And as the story in the Denver Post is to be believed, is coming into Spring Training this year really ready to go:
If Chacin is what he was in 2013, this team has a new #1 for the year and at the bargain price of $5.5 million. If he is 90% of what he was in 2013, the team has a solid #4. If he is what we saw in 2014….then plan on seeing wholesale trades by July because this team is in deep trouble. That is how big Chacin is to this team’s potential to win games and be competitive. When healthy this team could have the best defense overall from 1-8. They should hit (again, if healthy) and should be far better at scoring runs on the road. This team just needs decent healthy pitching. If it gets that, this team will still be playing meaningful games after September 20th. If it gets decent starting pitching the bullpen will be better. If they get good starting pitching Tulo and CarGo will still be here August 5th.
If Chacin is the most important person on the team’s roster, than TBA is the second most important. Of course TBA is To Be Announced (or TBD, to be determined). This team seemed to have a good plan for the 5th spot in the rotation with Tyler Anderson being given the inside position after his very quality year at AA, with the #5 spot giving him more days off, and an opportunity to increase his innings pitched while with meaningful innings but without taxing his body in a way that has led to injuries so far. It was the perfect cost-effective approach towards building a rotation made-up of sub-27 year old , largely home grown talent.
Of course it was to be. Anderson has a stress fracture, a nasty injury for a pitcher. Something about his delivery (I assume) has put stress on the end of the arm at the elbow area. They hope that rest will take care of the issue, but knowing when it is healed is hard, and knowing when the player can go all out? And how to keep the problem from reappearing is also a mystery. Anderson reminds me more and more of my 1993 Mazda 626, which looked great, was awesome in short segments, but managed to probably cost Mazda the price I paid in warranty work. I liked that car a lot but…I would never take a trip further than Denver in fear of expensive towing expenses.
So Anderson is out. Now the 5th rotation spot will be a battle between newly acquired David Hale (who has had some good outings in his career but whose 2nd half of 2014 didn’t impress), 24th round pick Christian Bergman (who battled pretty well last year but is not anyone you can really count on to keep you in 90% of his starts), the great Yohan Flande (yes, that was sarcasm), Chad Bettis (who bombed as a reliever for reasons no one is quite sure of but has had success as a starter in the minors), and some wreck of a vet yet to be signed who would be overjoyed to be the team’s fifth starter (a Jon Garland type). While I would have been interested to see what Anderson had, since I truly believe he is part of the team’s future, and Hale interests me (if he throws strikes he can be a pretty darn pitcher), and yes, Bettis is a curiosity, the current situation doesn’t exactly excite overall. Flande is best used as an arm in the bullpen (at Colorado Springs or Coors), Bettis hasn’t shown he can get guys out consistently at Colorado Springs as a starter, let alone Coors, and Bergman is in reality a filler arm, meant to stay at AAA to provide starters and be available for a few injury-induced starts up in the major leagues. Right now I am betting Hale is the leading candidate.
Of course the best case scenario is that by mid-May either or preferably both Jon Grey and Eddie Butler are ready to be elevated to Coors. This is why the 5th starter this year is truly merely holding a seat warm. The team wants those guys to be here, but they will have to earn it to see what the visiting locker room looks like San Diego, Phoenix, San Fran and LA. The team isn’t going to give an elevation, they have to make the case themselves.
So Chacin and TBA/TBD are the two most important players the Rockies have in 2015. If Chacin blows up, then we will be seeing TWO of Flande, Bettis, Hale, or Bergman, which means the season is probably over by May 1. If Chacin pitches well then the team can likely live with less than outstanding pitching in the number 5 spot, and still be in contention by mid-May/June 1. And by that time the team could well have Anderson back as well. They need these two guys to at least provide the team a chance to be within 4 games by mid-May.
Want a real horror? What is one of DLR, Matzek, and Lyles gets hurt? Alongside an injured Chacin you would then have three of those guys going every fifth day! Why, that would be the most hideous starting pitching since…2014. Oh right, we saw that story already.
The team’s hopes I am betting is the following rotation on June 1 – DLR, Lyles, Matzek, Chacin, Grey with Anderson and Butler (Butler and Grey can be flipped for each other in the team’s eyes by-in-large) pitching well and healthy in the minors and creating a situation where if any of the top 4 are struggling they can send them back to the minors or the bullpen and bring up a solid starter. If that happens this team suddenly has something it hasn’t had in years – starting pitching depth. Yes, I wrote that.
So if you go to the Spring Training facility, make sure Chacin and the group of TBA/TBDs are rested, healthy, and ready. Make sure they get their running in and have a massage. Send them down a bottle of asprin or some Vitamin D. If this team is going to win, we need them!