Rock Mining, Week 17: Starting rotation discussion

Justin K. Aller

Once the laughing stock of MLB, the Rockies rotation has turned it around in less than a year and the future looks bright.

The Rockies current struggles may make this season seem like a failure, but it actually is a great building block for this team's best years for contention, 2014-2016. While the early season surge by Colorado made many of us forget that the season was looked at as a rebuilding year, the team has done as well as, if not better, than most predicted it would. Nowhere has this progress been more apparent than the starting rotation and today I will look at where it takes us into the future by looking at the current starters and a brief view of when and where the farm system will help.

I have often thought, and many others have said, that if the Rockies can't have a true ace on their pitching staff, it would be great to have three quality No. 2 starters to give them an edge. The Rockies have that three-headed monster this year in the form of Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, and Tyler Chatwood. Of these, Chacin and De La Rosa have the stronger cases to the top two spots in the rotation, 22/21 starts versus 15 and team winning percentages of 64%/62% versus 53%. Chatwood can't be completely blamed for these numbers though as the front office chose to leave him in the minors at the start of the season and he has had some horrible run support when he only allowed one earned run (3-0, 3-2, 3-1, 1-0).

For the Rockies, one of the best parts about this triumvirate is that it is cost-controlled for next year. If they choose to pick up De La Rosa's $11M extension, these three players will cost less than $16.5M. It is likely to get more expensive after that as Chacin and Chatwood both are arbitration eligible in 2015 and they hit free agency in 2016 and 2018 respectively. While some have talked about wanting to extend Jorge for 2015/2016, based on the current talent level that I will talk about later, I think that the Rockies would be smart to take a wait and see approach on a guy who will be turning 34/35.

To give an idea on how good these three are, the Rockies have only once (2010) had two starters below a 3.50 ERA and right now these three are at 3.40, 3.21, and 3.15 even after a disastrous series against the Braves. Chacin may well be rounding into the role of staff ace this year as his last two games have stopped losing trends for the team (a win against the Brewers to save a .500 homestand and his dominance of the Pirates last night after four straight losses).

As good as the top three have been this year, the bottom two spots in the rotation have been similarly bad. Juan Nicasio is currently holding the number four spot in the rotation and has started to turn the fortunes of this spot around while the number five spot has been a revolving door of futility.

Nicasio started off the season well while being slated in the number three slot. Without two bullpen implosions that gave up three and five runs after he left the games, Juan would have started the season 5-0, albeit with a 4.62 ERA. His May was decent before completely falling apart in June. Since his return from the minors though, Juan has shown a better ability to deal with base runners and keep hitters off balance. Unless he can learn another pitch though, his ceiling is probably a fourth starter and perhaps a reliever if the Rockies farm system grows enough arms. He is on the same timeline as Chatwood financially, arbitration eligible in 2015 and free agency in 2018 so he is not likely to go anywhere soon.

The fifth spot in the rotation has been a "be careful what you wish for" situation. Starting with John Garland, the position has gone consistently downhill. When the Rockies were doing well, Garland's struggles were seen as a weakness of the team. However, in his twelve starts, the team went 5-7. Jeff Francis returned in June to take Garland's spot and the team went 0-3. After Francis came Roy Oswalt (0-4), Drew Pomeranz (0-4), Collin McHugh (0-1), and now Chad Bettis (0-1). All of a sudden, 5-7 doesn't seem too bad when compared to 0-13.

This article is about the future though, so I will focus on where the team will go for its fifth starter. Since nobody should hold his start against the Braves against him, Bettis (PuRP #6) should at least get a look. However, Oswalt could be returning from the DL in two weeks so Bettis will have to make a good impression quickly. Someone from the group of Pomeranz, Bettis, and McHugh will probably have the best chance to fill this position in 2014.

The future: Both Eddie Butler (PuRP #3) and Jon Gray (PuRP #1) are on fairly strict innings limits this year. For this reason, I do not think they can be counted on to start the 2014 season with the big league club. Despite only throwing 69 pitches and getting seven strikeouts in his Modesto debut, Gray was not allowed to pitch past the fifth. As the Nuts announcers said last night, it is important to see how these two will pitch when they are tired before you know what you can expect.

Either or both of them could be with the team before the season ends though, and they are the reason that I earlier recommended against signing Jorge De La Rosa past next year. Even if only one of them advances into an effective major league pitcher, the Rockies should be set up well for the next three years. Other possibilities as 2015-16 starters include: Tyler Matzek (PuRP #9) and Tyler Anderson (PuRP #10).

So, as the 2013 season concludes over the next two months the rotation is something for us all to watch for good reasons. In only one season it has turned from a horror show into a strength of the club and should continue to shine going forward. Here are my guesses at the next two years rotations and please provide your vote/comments on how the Rockies should fill the final spot in 2014.

2014: Chacin, De La Rosa, Chatwood, Nicasio, Bettis

2015: Chacin, Chatwood, Gray, Bettis, Butler

The Good-Jhoulys Chacin

As previously mentioned, The Machine is quietly turning into the stopper of the rotation and the rock to build the pitching staff around. His eight-inning performance last night was just what this team needed and he went 15 innings with a 2.40 ERA in his two starts this week.

The Bad-Carlos Gonzalez's finger

This ongoing injury for Cargo continues to hamper what could otherwise be an MVP caliber season. Despite what not having him in the lineup does to the team, I wish they would give him a few days without any baseball activity to see how it does.

The Ugly-Atlanta

I hope that next year's games against the Braves all get moved to Colorado. I don't know how to make this possible other than the threat of a hurricane, but Atlanta is where Rockies hopes and seasons go to die. Thank goodness the team only travels there once a year.

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