The Colorado Rockies are in kind of a weird position at the moment. They sit at 26 and 21, tied atop the NL West, and solidly in contention. The problem is that they weren't supposed to be in contention; the idea was that 2013 would likely be a bridge year to 2014. 2013 was supposed to be about collecting data on the young players, figure out who would be the long term answer at various spots, and let those players develop in optimal environments (ie, either AA, AAA, or the Majors). The current Rockies are sort of like an amateur skier finding himself halfway down a double-black diamond slope; one wrong move could lead to disaster, but the only option is to keep moving forward.
At any particular moment, a baseball team has to juggle the demands of three different time-frames: the present, the near future (the middle and latter parts of the current season), and the long term future (2014 and beyond). For teams like the Astros, the first two time periods are virtually irrelevant; almost all their attention is focused on the long term. For teams leading their divisions with strong rosters, the present is the main focus. Teams in the middle have to decide where they sit on the win curve and allocate their resources accordingly. Coming into 2013, the Rockies appeared to be more interested in the future, and particularly the long term future. That's why stop-gaps like Jon Garland, Jeff Francis, Reid Brignac, and Yorvit Torrealba were signed; to be mentors and soak up playing time while more talented long-term pieces simmered in the Minors.
Contending has thrown a wrench into that calculus. All of a sudden, the present is very important. We've already seen a number of moves made in the interest of winning now; releasing Chris Nelson and calling up Nolan Arenado, releasing Reid Brignac and calling up DJ LeMahieu, and recently demoting Josh Rutledge to give DJ the majority of the starts at second base. But while playing infielder roulette might marginally improve the team, they are only so many deck chairs compared to the ice berg that is the starting rotation. If the Rockies are seriously in win-now mode, they need to make hard choices about their rotation priorities.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa, through both performance and pedigree, are their best starters right now and have a firm lock on their spots. Rotation slots three through five, though, require some serious consideration.
By my count, the following pitchers are serious candidates for those spots: Jon Garland, Jeff Francis, Juan Nicasio, Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz, and Roy Oswalt (in a few weeks). Garland, Francis, and Nicasio have gotten the majority of starts in those spots, and each has rotated turns on the hot seat after each poor start.
When the focus was on the long-term, it made sense to have Garland and Francis eat innings in the Majors while Chatwood and Pomeranz worked on their efficiency in the Minors. Sure the older guys would occasionally lay an egg, but usually they ought to provide six innings per night, allow three or four runs, and see if the offense could bail them out. That's not a strategy that produces champions, but we weren't thinking about championships in March.
The problem is that Garland and Francis have struggled to clear even those modest expectations. Garland hasn't reached the sixth inning in three of his last four starts--and in the start where he did pitch six he gave up five runs. His 5.19 ERA and pathetically low strikeout rate simply don't inspire much confidence. Francis, meanwhile, has reached six inning pitched only twice: in his first start and in his most recent start against the Cubs. His 6 ERA is cringe-worthy, but his strikeout rate is actually a robust 7.75 per 9 innings and his 58% Left on Base percentage seems like fluky bad luck. So to conclude: they've both been bad, but in different ways. How fun.
So why not cut them loose and bring up Chatwood and Pomeranz (of course Chatwood is already up while Francis recovers from an injury; we don't know if this is permanent or not)? If the Rockies' best rotation includes the youngsters, aren't they throwing away wins the longer they keep them stashed in the Minors? They've both been striking out a boat load of hitters and have solid mid-threes ERAs in a hitter's league. True, Pomeranz could stand to be a bit more efficient with his pitch counts. But if the Major League starters aren't going deep into games anyway, what's the difference? At least with Pomeranz there's the possibility of upside.
If the Rockies decide the needs of the present require taking a chance, the prospects need to be in the Majors. There's no turning back; Garland and Francis don't have Minor League options. The Rockies can be cautious for a few more trips through the rotation, but if post-season dreams are to become a reality, they need to get the best starting five in place. And sooner, rather than later.
WE LINK, YOU DECIDE
Troy Renck of the Denver Post examines the ins and outs of LeMahieu's call-up and Rutledge's demotion. He makes a good point about the strength of the infield's defense with Nolan Arenado at third, Troy Tulowitzki at short, DJ at second, and Todd Helton at first.
Colorado native Kevin Gausman got the first start of his career yesterday for the Baltimore Orioles. The results were a mixed bag (five innings pitched, three runs), but his talent is eye opening. He throws the ball really, really hard.
Grant Brisbee's organizational drought series continues, as he goes team by team looking at who possesses star short stops. The Rockies have one. Surprise!