2012 Rockies Player Reviews: Young Starters

Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Much of the 2011/12 offseason was spent "acquiring all the young arms", an attempt to stack the team with enough rotation options that at least a couple would work out for the year, even if we had to shuffle the roster about through the year. Unfortunately, none of our youngest starters were able to take significant leaps in 2012; they battled injury, inefficiency and inexperience. Project 5183, designed in part to improve their development, seemed to help the older starters more than the younger ones, if anything. Let's break this all down.

Jhoulys Chacin, still only 24 going into his third full season in the majors, was all set to serve as the unofficial ace of the staff. His sinking performance at the end of 2011 raised some concerns, causing some to speculate that an injury might be lingering under the surface. For once, the conspiracy crowd was correct. Through April, Chacin's ground ball rate had dropped significantly from normal, and a lowered velocity indicated something was off. Chacin eventually began to complain of numbing sensations in his throwing arm. After an incredibly ugly start in early May, Chacin was demoted to the minors, but the move was redacted when Chacin was diagnosed with a rare nerve condition that was preventing him from controlling his pitching effectively.

After spending the heart of the season on the disabled list, Chacin returned in late August with improved velocity. The final month of the season was encouraging for a rebound on the surface, but the groundball rate had not returned and while Chacin's control was the same or slightly better than usual to close out the year, he had lost some of his strikeout ability. Heading into 2013, Chacin's health is important, as he is likely our best bet for a pseudo-ace in this rotation.

Juan Nicasio wasn't guaranteed a rotation spot out of Spring, but he seemed the best candidate provided he had recovered in full (physically as well as mentally) from his horrifying incident on the mound in 2011 that broke his neck and put into question his future career. Eventually making that rotation on opening day, Nicasio demonstrated a worse groundball rate, a worse walk rate and a worse hit rate than his debut in 2011. The injury bug once again bit the righty, this time a knee problem that would ultimately sideline him for the rest of the season. He is a likely candidate to open in the 2013 rotation.

Of all of the upcoming young pitching talent in the system, none was more exciting than that of Drew Pomeranz. The lefty, centerpiece of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, earned one of the final rotation slots out of Spring Training, though the season schedule made it possible for the Rockies to avoid adding him to the rotation officially until two weeks into the season. Early on, velocity was also a concern for Pomeranz. In his short 2011 debut stint, many noticed that his fastball velocity had not come as advertised. His professional career up until that point was incredibly short, so many chalked it up to fatigue and inability to adjust to the long season, not to mention that he was recovering from an appendectomy and had just been shut down for a month waiting to be traded. But when he came out of ST featuring similar velocity numbers, concern grew.

The Rockies were well aware of Pomeranz' lack of season-long play, and consciously limited his innings early in the year. Pomeranz starts were regularly shortened or skipped altogether if he experienced even the slightest unusual feelings in his arm, and held to a stricter pitch count than to the others, often pitched his way out of games early by simply not throwing enough strikes. He was eventually sent back to the Sky Sox in favor of seeing if any of the other starters could make a go of it. In July, Pomeranz returned with improved velocity, as well as less of an efficiency issue, throwing more pitches for strikes and fewer pitches per at bat. He stuck with the Rockies for the rest of the season, but is not guaranteed a spot out of the gate in 2013's rotation.

Alex White, the other notable piece in the Jimenez deal that was in contention for a spot, was moved to the bullpen near the end of Spring Training. He ultimately did not make the roster in either capacity and returned to starting in the minors, but the decision was a harbinger of what the team really thought of White in the long-term. White was given a chance to start in May and June, putting in time as both a starter and hybrid under 5183. White battled the same inefficiency problems that Pomeranz did. He had trouble getting opposing batters to swing at his stuff, lowering his strikeout rate drastically, though White's groundball tendencies did improve. White was demoted, then returned again in August, and while White's tendencies for giving up hard hits was lessened, his power and efficiency numbers still suffered, likely contributing to his eventual trade for Wilton Lopez this offseason.

The final notable rotation contender in 2012 was young Tyler Chatwood, acquired from the Angels for Chris Iannetta in the offseason. Only 21 when acquired, Chatwood was the youngest of the rotation candidates but with two-thirds of a MLB season under his belt, was actually one of the more experienced. Chatwood ended up starting the year in the Rockies bullpen, only making the roster when Outman's illness prevented him from occupying the spot. His time in the pen was fairly unimpressive. While his walk rate was its lowest, his fastball movement (which was considered one of his greatest strengths) was nonexistent, leading to an excess of hits, especially extra base hits.

After a demotion to the Sky Sox, Chatwood saw a brief period in the early stages of 5183 as a hybrid. Remaining ineffective, the Rockies chose to send Chatwood all the way to the Drillers. Chatwood would finally get a chance to start in August. He was less hittable but walked more, and that same inefficiency plagued him. After the season, he was given permission to participate in the Arizona Fall League despite his MLB experience, and after continuing to throw too many pitches game by game, ended up having to leave early due to fatigue. Chatwood looks unlikely to earn a rotation spot out of the gate, barring injury to another player.

The only story that really feels at all positive out of this group is that of Christian Friedrich, 2008's #1 draft selection. The lefty starter shot through the minors early in his career, but difficulty with recovering from injury at AA Tulsa had lowered most people's views on his potential as a major league starter. Friedrich wasn't a serious candidate to make the rotation, having just been protected from the Rule 5 draft the previous November. Friedrich opened the season well in AAA, which earned him a May callup to the rotation.

While Friedrich did struggle to keep the ball from being put into play, he demonstrated a confidence that none of the other young starters did. He attacked hitters, and was significantly more efficient than his peers. He was particularly effective on the road, putting up some of the best Rockies starts of the season in San Francisco and Arizona. Unfortunately, Friedrich succumbed to a back injury that limited his debut season to just about three months, but opinion of him is back where it should be and I think he has a good shot to make the rotation as a fifth starter next year.

Two cameo appearances from Edwar Cabrera finish off the list. Cabrera is an interesting pitcher, one who might be a much more exciting prospect in another organization. His ability to strike out batters is uncanny, able to throw every pitch to a missed swing, but when batters make contact, do they ever. Cabrera allowed seven home runs at the MLB level, including five in his debut start against the Natonals. He also didn't demonstrate his strikeout skills, nor could he control the ball well out of the hand. A small sample size to be sure, but it could be indicative of what to expect from Cabrera on his worst days in a MLB uniform. He will most likely be starting the season in the Sky Sox rotation.

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