In July of 2011, Baseball America released a mid season list ranking their top 50 prospects in all of baseball. At the time, two Rockies were mentioned; Wilin Rosario at #23, and Nolan Arenado at #46.
However, a third player currently donning the purple pinstripes actually ranked even higher in the minds of baseball experts. Yes, I'm talking about Drew Pomeranz. Just two summers ago, before he was dealt to Colorado as part of the Ubaldo Jimenez package, Pomeranz was seen as the #14 prospect in the entire country.
That's how far his stock has tumbled. The Rockies didn't just think they were getting a guy who could become a solid pitcher and give them a chance to win games with Pomeranz, they thought they were getting a guy who would at least flirt with becoming a top of the rotation candidate.
Can you imagine if the Rockies had another starter capable of shutting down opponents the way Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, and Tyler Chatwood did in 2013? That would be a game changer for this team, and as strange as it sounds now, that's exactly what the Rockies thought they might have as soon as 2013 when they pulled the trigger that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland.
Since that trade, we've watched Rosario and Arenado grow into solid major league contributors, while Pomeranz has done nothing but regress as a pitcher. Or at least that's what I would have said if this review was written in August, because in September, Pomeranz provided a brief but measurable glimmer of hope for the future.
Back in April however, Pomeranz was still in the midst of his two year slow motion free fall. After a 2012 season that saw flashes of brilliance but ultimately more struggle than progress, Pomeranz was sent to AAA Colorado Springs to work on game.
Things started off well for the big lefty, as four of his first five starts in a Sky Sox uniform went at least 5.2 innings with Pomeranz not allowing more than one earned run. By the time April was over, his ERA sat at just 2.54, and he had struck out 34 batters in just 28.1 innings of work. It seemed very possible that Pomeranz was just a few starts away from taking the steps necessary to become an impact starter at the major league level.
Then the bottom fell out. Six of the next eight starts from Pomeranz involved lines that included at least four earned runs, and just as concerning was the fact that his control was trending in the wrong direction, indicated by the slow but steady increase in his walk rate.
However, by the time June rolled around, it was becoming obvious that the Rockies needed help in the bottom half of their rotation. The Jon Garland experiment was over, and Juan Nicasio, Jeff Francis, and Roy Oswalt were consistently losing games for a team that was still hovering close to first place as the All Star break approached. Pressure was mounting on the team to give Drew Pomeranz a shot to stop the bleeding as even mediocrity would have been an improvement in these games.
That pressure only grew more intense when Pomeranz out of nowhere put together his most dominant outing of the season on the 16th of June, going 6.2 inning while striking out 11, only walking two, and not allowing an earned run. After another solid outing on the 21st, Pomeranz got the call and with it his shot at plugging the hole at the bottom of the Rockies rotation.
It was a complete disaster! Between June 30th and July 22nd, Pomeranz made four major league starts. In those four starts, Pomeranz never pitched more than 4.1 innings, he never walked fewer than four batters, and he never allowed less than three earned runs. In addition, opposing hitters posted an astounding 1.121 OPS off Pomeranz (Miguel Cabrera led the majors this season with a 1.078 OPS). Somehow, Pomeranz was even worse than the fourth and fifth starters who came before him, even though it didn't seem possible at the time of his call up.
Pomeranz's next stop wasn't the minor leagues, it was the disabled list. On the 26th of July, the Rockies mercifully placed Pomeranz on shelf (retroactive to the 23rd) with left bicep tendinitis, and fans largely forgot about him as they did all they could to erase the horror show he put on at Coors Field during the early summer months from their mind. News about his return, or if it was even going to happen at all in 2013 was scarce, but most Rockies fans didn't care. After what we saw in just 16.2 innings of work (an 8.10 ERA that included 18 walks), nobody was anxious to see Pomeranz pitch again at the major league level in 2013.
But then a funny thing happened. Pomeranz did pitch again at the major league level this season, and more importantly, he pitched extremely well. It was only four bullpen outings, so any excitement here must be tempered, but there were absolutely signs that this was a different pitcher - A guy much closer to the Drew Pomeranz we thought we were getting in 2011 than the one we grew all too familiar with in 2013.
First off, his delivery was different. The arm angle was higher and more direct to his release point, and it gave him a much better ability to throw strikes. Second, his velocity was back. Pomeranz sat at 91-92 MPH in all four of his September outings and even dialed it up a bit higher than that when he had to. Take a look at this velocity graph from fangraphs measuring Pomeranz's fastball. The difference is night and day from earlier in the year, and actually, it's night and day from what we've seen in most of his starts at the major league level so far.
The other thing we saw from Pomeranz in September was an ability to throw strikes consistently. Again, it was only five innings in four outings out of the bullpen, but 75% of the pitches he threw were for strikes, and considering that three of the them came against the Red Sox and Cardinals at Coors Field, that's no small feat for a guy who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat earlier in the year.
Then, in a domino effect, we saw how effective Drew's curve ball can be when hitters have to worry about his fastball being a strike. On multiple occasions, it froze good left handed hitters like ice sculptures when he got ahead in the count. It's a pitch that has a chance to be devastating if Pomeranz can get the rest of his repertoire to stick.
Pomeranz's final line for September was five innings, zero runs, one hit, six strikeouts, and just one walk.
2013 Grade with the Rockies: D
He saves himself from an "F" with his September performance, but because it's such a small sample size, his grade can't go any higher than that. Not after the abomination we saw earlier in the year.
|2013 - Drew Pomeranz||0-4||8||4||0||0||0||0||21.2||25||15||15||4||19||19||6.23||2.03|
Next season marks a very significant crossroads in Drew Pomeranz's career. He obviously has talent (you don't get drafted #5 overall unless you've got some serious upside), but until he hit the majors, he never experienced any real baseball adversity. Throughout most of his career, his stuff was just so overwhelming to opposing hitters, he could get by without having to take his game to the next level.
Now, he's been smacked around, he's been forced to make big adjustments, and he's got a better understanding of what it's going to take to be successful at this level. It remains to be seen if he's going to take the steps needed to become a consistent starter long term and adapt to the challenges thrown at him, but he definitely showed you something in September when he could have easily just packed in a lost season.
There's something else going on here too. It's very possible that the biceps tendinitis that kept him out of action for nearly two months was impacting his game for several weeks leading up to his DL stint. Perhaps the May through July Pomeranz was really just an injured player and April and September Pomeranz is the guy we are going to see going forward. That's complete speculation on my part, but it's absolutely a scenario that must be considered with him going forward.
Overall, he's a guy the Rockies should NOT count on as far as the rotation goes next season as there's just too many unknowns with him right now, but I could absolutely see a scenario where he bounces back in 2014 and transforms into an effective major league pitcher. He doesn't even have to be the guy fans thought they were getting in the Ubaldo deal to really help this club. Even if he just finds a way to pitch deeper into the game and give the team a chance to win most times out, it'll go a long way into fixing the gaping hole at the bottom of the Rockies rotation.