I am a pretty well established Purple-shade wearing fan of the Rockies. I can find good things no matter how badly it looks (and smells at times). But at the end of last year I was done. I cancelled my cable because I just didn’t really want to hear about this team for a while. And…it has stayed cancelled. Sports bars and internet are not quite the same as watching 162 from your favorite couch. But it didn’t matter because…this team is bad an still a ways away from contention.
But is it?
I have said since 2014 that we have a lot of good talent coming, especially young pitching talent. But young players have learning curves. Oh sure, there are the occasional DeGrooms, Fernandezs, and the like that is out there, but most young players, especially pitchers, take a while to put all their talent together as major leaguers. We have become attuned in our culture to expect (and demand) immediate satisfaction. But that just isn’t realistic when it comes to being a players in the hardest sport in the world to excel at. And when fans become impatient, you get bad results. Teams become impatient, run out and sign free agents that cost the future by giving up draft picks. Or you trade your young pitchers because they have not gotten where you want quick enough. Ask yourself, do you think the pitching starved Orioles might like Jake Arietta back? Arietta had all the talent in the world, but…it didn’t get put together soon enough…and so now he’s winning Cy Young awards for the Cubs, not them.
Patience is a necessity. Sometimes because of injuries. Sometimes because of inconsistency. And sometimes because of anxiety disorders (sorry, still want to see Tyler Matzek make it all the way back (partly for the Rox, partly for him).
And that leads us into looking at the quarter pole mark of the season. They head into the finale of the series with Pittsburg 20-20, and 2-3 on this difficult 9 game road swing through three very good teams and their stadiums. And so far, looking at the starting pitching, we are beginning to see the fruition of Dan O’Dowd’s drafting and the recent coaching of Marc Wiley and coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes (and those further down the line). The two staff leaders thus far are clearly Tyler Chatwood and Chad Bettis. Chatwood was originally an Angels 2nd round pick, but O’Dowd traded Chris Ianetta for him back in 2012, and the team saw the first breaking in of his potential in 2013, but after two difficult years of rehab, he has just set the record for the longest scoreless streak on the road of the Rockies pitchers in history. Not too bad. Bettis was an up and coming 2nd rounder from 2010 who lost 2012 to a sore shoulder and who bombed out as a reliever. But now…he is beginning to look more and more like a solid #2 or #3 in what will one day be the first Rockies division champions. But as big as those two are, it is Jon Gray and Eddie Butler who are even more emblematic of the difficulty of growing into a player’s talent. Gray had an awful start in St. Louis and a not so great one against the Pirates at Coors when the Pirates fouled off a million pitches, but around those starts have been some of the best starts of a young pitcher in Rockies history. And remember, he is still just a rookie. He has been learning how to get to the later innings while preserving his strikeout ability. Gray really does look like the future ace of this team. But…rookies get lit up from time to time. Heck, even Kershaw gets lit up from time to time. So, not depairing. He is still learning…but a great base to learn from.
And Butler? He still has less than a year of starts to his name. And that is good because his performance in 2014 and 2015 were awful. No one was surprised when he began the season in AAA. And a lot of us (even me) probably thought he was another missed opportunity. While the strikeout artist the team had in 2013 has disappeared (maybe not for good…strikeouts are overrated especially if you want your starts pitching into the 7th, 8th and 9th). But he went to AAA and finally figured out how to get batters out after 2 strikes and out of innings when he has 2 outs. And he learned. He is now beginning to realize his talent base. I still think the strikeouts will come back at some point in the future but anytime you can essentially pitch equal to Gerrit Cole in his home stadium, you know you are starting to become a real solid major league pitcher. He may never be a #2 like the team had hoped, but even if he is just a #4, that is still pretty good.
And maybe as important as it is to see those four beginning to realize their talent, it also gives time for other to do the same. Butler suffered from being rushed. Gray needed the time to figure out his off-speed pitches (his slider is now so hard hitters swing, and his changeup is at least average now). In years prior the team would have felt the need especially when their first starter got hurt to rush one of their prospects to the majors too soon. Every start that this group takes allows that much more time for Hoffman, Freeland, Musgrave (his first start in AAA didn’t go so well, but that is why you want to give young pitchers time to mature), Tyler Anderson (finally healthy…the team hopes at least) and German Marquez to get their pitches that much more crisp, that much more confident, that much more ready for the bigs.
So the future is bright. And a lot brighter than I thought back in March.
So, is this team capable of playing at least .500 ball, maybe even be in the playoff hunt in September? At the risk of sounding like my purple-tinted glasses have become my preferred eye-wear…the answer is yes.
And here is why. So far this team has gotten nothing from its opening day starter (Jorge De La Rosa) and its starting catcher (Hundley). CarGo has been far less than expected or capable, and the same can be said for Parra. They have gotten about what you expect from Blackmon (though the steals thanks to the injured toe are down) and DJ and Reynolds (a little less power, a bit better average). The only players you can say have been better than expected are Story and Arenado, and I am not sure you can say that of Arenado…he really is just that good. The team has gotten very little out Wolters or Adames (offensively, defensively has been plus). Of course Story has been a big plus compared to the shortstop position in the 2nd half of 2015. But given his bat speed, the power shouldn’t surprise too much. And the fact he is striking out too much is bad but he is also seeing around 4.5 pitches per AB, so…even that is a sign of the maturity in the player, even within the season.
So, it is not like the team has managed to play .500 ball by playing out of the minds in the field or at the plate.
The pitching? Well, Bettis has been up and down and owns an ERA over 4. Chatwood has been a little better than 2013, but that also demonstrates the improvement in his pitches that occurred during the long rehab. As said earlier, Gray and Butler have been plusses, but not massively so. Chris Russin has given the team…about what it got in 2015. Jorge De La Rosa has been awful before getting hurt, and while his 2015 started out with injury and struggles, he has looked the worst he has since he came to the team in 2008. So the starting pitching isn’t pitching far outside of possible of expected.
The relief? The team has the 5th worst ERA. They have gotten nothing out of Motte and very little out of Castro until this weekend. Chad Qualls has been worse than expected so far, and Justin Miller and Scot Oberg have been really bad. The only three really “surprises” are Boone Logan (who is finally healthy and pitching as he did in New York), Gonzalez Germen (mostly due to better control), and Carlos Estevez (and that only because he is a rookie, but after last season AFL, this was what the team hoped for from him). Their long relief (Bergman and Russin) and closer (McGee) have been about what is expected.
One of the biggest issues with the relief corp in years when the pen has been bad (okay, grant you, that is most years), is too many innings, not enough depth. This team still hasn’t gotten an inning from either Motte or Adam Ottovino, both of whom they will rely on a lot the 2nd half of the year (Motte could be back sooner). And there isn’t just “arms” coming but some real talent in the form of bullpen arms coming. Sam Moll is a 3rd round pick from 2013, and has been excellent in the offensive-oriented AAA. Matt Carasiti, a 6th rounder in 2012, has saved 13 of 15 and is carrying a 2.50 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Add those two to the list of other occasional arms for the Rox over the past two seasons like Oberg (who is again in AAA), Simon Castro and Jason Gurka along with the great Yohan Flande, and the team has a list of arms that has both some talent and some success prior. So, the relief corp could…operative word as always…could…be a real strength the rest of 2016.
So, does this team have the chance to be at least .500 and near if not entirely at the front of a playoff race. And after the 2011 to 2015, that isn’t just exciting. It is reason to finally dust off the purple-tinted shades and watch a little baseball.