State of the Position: Rockies' starting rotation better, but questions remain

The second-to-last installment of our preseason State of the Position series takes a look at what is by far the Rockies' most polarizing unit.

No matter what they did, the Rockies' starting rotation in 2013 was going to be better than it was the year before, when Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francis, Drew Pomeranz and company posted a collective 5.81 ERA.

But that shouldn't lessen the accomplishments of what last year's staff actually did.

Led by career seasons from Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood and a return to form for Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado's starters combined for a 4.57 ERA, though each member of the aforementioned trio finished the year with an ERA under 3.50. The success of those guys, along with a new acquisition and two of the best pitching prospects in the game, gives the Rockies' rotation hope entering 2014. But how much of that is real and what part, or parts, might be a mirage?

Let's observe.

Incumbent starters

Jhoulys Chacin

Last season, the 26-year-old Venezuelan hurler really harnessed the ability he's always had for keeping the ball in the park and took it to a new level. Chacin didn't light the world on fire in terms of strikeouts or inducing grounders, he posted a career-low walk rate of 2.8 per nine innings and maintained an unbelievably low home run rate for most of the season -- like, at a record-breaking level. For a guy who pitches half of his games at Coors Field, that's a tremendous accomplishment, and not one that is necessarily 100 percent luck-driven. Big-league hitters have never really been all that successful at squaring up Chacin; rather, the biggest problem in his career has been walks.

GS ERA FIP IP BB/9 K/9 GB%
2013 - Jhoulys Chacin 31 3.47 3.47 197⅓ 2.8 5.7 46.8%

If he is truly over that hurdle, the only thing holding him back from repeating his success from a year ago might be health. Chacin will start the season on the disabled list and is eyeing an early-May return after suffering a minor shoulder injury at the beginning of spring training. The outlook is good if he's healthy. Some regression should be expected, but we're talking about a guy who won't often have an ERA north of 4.00 as he navigates through his prime years.

Jorge De La Rosa

De La Rosa missed most of 2011 and 2012 with elbow ligament damage but came back with a vengeance in 2013. He, too, posted the best full-season walk rate of his career and did a phenomenal job limiting home runs. He gave up more hits than Chacin, but struck out a few more batters to help quell the damage a bit.

GS ERA FIP IP BB/9 K/9 GB%
2013 - Jorge De La Rosa 30 3.49 3.76 167⅔ 3.3 6.0 47.3%

The 32-year-old southpaw might be less of a candidate for regression than Chacin based on his track record. He has struck out more than eight batters per nine innings during his time with the Rockies and is now further removed from Tommy John surgery, not to mention 2014 is a walk year for De La Rosa.

Tyler Chatwood

Chatwood was a huge story for the Rockies in 2013, bouncing back from a pair of underwhelming seasons to begin his career by posting a team-best 3.15 ERA in 20 starts. Like Chacin and De La Rosa, Chatwood's success was a direct result of his ability to limit walks and home runs. He gave up his fair share of hits and wasn't proficient in striking batters out, but a terrific ground-ball rate allowed him to escape jams with great regularity.

GS ERA FIP IP BB/9 K/9 GB%
2013 - Tyler Chatwood 20 3.15 3.66 111⅓ 3.3 5.3 58.5%

Of the big three, Chatwood is probably in line for the most regression, but that perception might be a result of his lack of big-league innings compared to Chacin and De La Rosa. Chatwood obviously found a recipe for success not unlike that of Aaron Cook in his prime, and if the Rockies' terrific defensive infield can stay on the field and continue to do their thing, maybe the 24-year-old hurler won't fall off as much as people think.

Brett Anderson

Anderson represents arguably the biggest wild card in Colorado's rotation. If he's healthy, he's going to be the best of the bunch, and it's not particularly close. His presence would also go a long way toward stabilizing what was a very inconsistent unit after the Chacin/De La Rosa/Chatwood trio, and that can only mean good things for the Rockies. However, if he continues to be plagued by injuries as he was in Oakland before the Rockies acquired him for Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen, Colorado's rotation will be no better than it was a year ago, when it just plain wasn't good enough to contend with the others within the division.

GS ERA FIP IP BB/9 K/9 GB%
2013 - Brett Anderson 5 6.04 3.85 44⅔ 4.2 9.3 62.9%

The good news is Anderson has looked wonderful during spring training, and his most recent injuries were not arm-related. This guy has the profile to succeed in Coors Field; in fact, he's almost like Chacin, De La Rosa and Chatwood combined into one, but he's better. And moving to the National League will help him more than it will hurt him. Expect big things from 26-year-old lefty.

Juan Nicasio

This is a maddening individual when it comes to pitching consistency. Nicasio has shown he can be absolutely brilliant at the highest level. He possesses a plus fastball and a pretty good slider, but that's where it starts and ends. Nicasio's change-up is strictly a pitch of the "show me" variety, and it has a large effect on his ability to remain consistent through the five or six innings that starters need to be able to go.

GS ERA FIP IP BB/9 K/9 GB%
2013 - Juan Nicasio 31 5.14 4.25 157⅔ 3.7 6.8 45.1%

The bad news is that Nicasio's velocity has gone down by a couple mph over the last two years, but the good news is that, for the first time since he's been in the majors, he's coming off an offseason that wasn't exclusively used for rehabbing an injury. The results have been there for the most part this spring, but Nicasio has to remain consistent and show the ability to effectively work through six or so innings to keep his job in the rotation, otherwise the bullpen might be in his future.

MLB-quality depth

Franklin Morales is the frontrunner to start the year in the rotation while the Rockies wait for Chacin to return from the DL. Morales, as is his nature, has been a mixed bag this spring after the Rockies converted him back to a starter following their acquisition of the enigmatic southpaw from the Red Sox during the offseason. However, they know first-hand that he can be, at the very least, serviceable at the back-end of the rotation due to his ability to miss bats.

Jordan Lyles is also in the mix for that job, but he hasn't necessarily stepped up and claimed it, either. Lyles, who is only 23, was one of the worst starters in the majors while in Houston before the Rockies acquired him in the Dexter Fowler trade. However, most scouts agree that there is potential there, particularly if the Rockies can get him harness his two-seam fastball, which has pretty good velocity.

Christian Friedrich has already lost out on the battle for the No. 5 spot, as he was optioned to minor-league camp earlier this month. Friedrich is fully recovered from a back injury and was one of the main positives from early in spring training, but he hasn't been particularly good in games and remains a big question mark due to his health and relative lack of success in the high-minors.

On the farm

This is where things get exciting. Eddie Butler and Jon Gray are close. How close exactly? That remains to be seen. But both pitchers were about as dominant as it gets in the minors a year ago and had an opportunity to face big-league hitters this spring, to mostly mixed results. Butler is said to be a bit further along in his development and could find himself with the Rockies as early as June. Gray will get his first exposure above A-ball this year, and if he does what most scouts and prospect hounds think he's going to do, he won't be far behind.

Tyler Anderson is a pretty big step below those two, but he's an intriguing option in his own right. The Rockies' 2011 first-rounder has dealt with injuries throughout his minor-league career but is fully healthy and ready to go this year. He'll probably start in Tulsa alongside Gray and Butler, and considering the Rockies drafted him because of his proximity to the majors, he can't be ruled out as an option to step into the rotation at some point if needed. He doesn't have near the ceiling as the other two guys, but he could carve out a nice Jeff Francis-like career if all goes well.

Daniel Winkler is a real darkhorse here. Like the other three guys already mentioned, Winkler should begin the year in Tulsa, where he pitched pretty well in five starts after dominating the hitter-friendly Cal League for most of 2013. Winkler, 24, is a little older than Butler and Gray, but won't be extremely old for the level in 2014. If he's as good for Tulsa as he was in Modesto (2.97 ERA, 10.5 K/9), he'll work his way up the pecking order and give the Rockies' brass something to think about.

Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?

It would likely take significant injuries to all six -- or at least five out of six-- of Chacin, De La Rosa, Chatwood, Anderson, Butler and Gray for the Rockies to go outside of the organization to bolster their major-league pitching depth. I don't want to say that won't happen, because you and I both know better regarding the injury luck of this team. So, available options in that scenario might include Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, Brandon Morrow and Hisashi Iwakuma on the high end and Joe Blanton, Jason Hammel, Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Villanueva on the lower-end. Or, the Rockies could just quit baseball forever in that scenario. That would be more likely and better for everyone.

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