If someone were to ask me why there's a chance this Colorado team could be different than the ones we've in recent seasons, the short answer would be only two words; "Rotation depth".
It's not all that noticeable on the surface, but it doesn't take much digging to realize that the second and third line of starting pitching the Rockies assembled for 2014 is much, much better than the cast of characters we saw this team run out there in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Last season, Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood, and Juan Nicasio started 112 of the team's 162 games. In those 162 games, the Rockies went a very encouraging 62-50. If the Rockies went just .500 in the other 50 games, they would have finished 2013 with a very respectable 87 wins.
Unfortunately, the Rockies went an abysmal 12-38 in those other 50 games, which put the team at 74 wins and in the NL West cellar again.
(Yes, I've brought up this point before, and I'm going to continue to bring it up as the season develops because I truly think this is reason the Rockies are going to surprise people by the end of the summer)
What's important to note here though is who started those other 50 games. Here's a quick refresher.
Jon Garland (Rockies record in games he started: 5-7)
Garland started off well, going 3-0 for the Rockies out of the gate which helped contribute to their 13-4 start in 2013. However, he quickly turned back into a pumpkin as opponents posted a .972 OPS against him and the Rockies went just 2-7 over his next nine starts before he was released. He hasn't pitched in the majors for any team since and his MLB career is likely done. (If you take away his first three starts in April, the Rockies actually went 9-38 in the last 47 games started by the pitchers on this list)
Jeff Francis (Rockies record in games he started: 4-8)
Francis may have been the best of the merry-go-round options the Rockies used to try and plug the hole in the bottom of the rotation, but that's really just an indictment on how awful this part of the rotation was in 2013. In 12 starts, Francis posted an unsightly 6.16 ERA.
Chad Bettis (Rockies record in games he started: 1-7)
Chad Bettis is going to be a useful piece for the Rockies going forward, but last season he was thrown to the wolves in August when every other option failed. His 5.02 ERA actually wasn't too terrible, but he averaged less than five innings a start and with the bullpen taxed and several key members of the offense missing, the team struggled when he started. (With the development of another pitch and more seasoning in the majors, Bettis the the only one of the starters in this group who can provide value going forward. Not surprisingly, he's the only member of this list still on the 40 man roster.)
Roy Oswalt (Rockies record in games he started: 1-5)
Let's make these last few quick. He's done as a major league baseball player.
Jeff Manship (Rockies record in games he started: 0-4)
Shouldn't be a major league starter. If he is, your team has series pitching depth issues.
Collin McHugh (Rockies record in games he started: 1-3)
See Jeff Manship
Drew Pomeranz (Rockies record in games he started: 0-4)
8.11 ERA as a starter last season, couldn't find the plate, lacked any confidence at all. He still may develop into a good pitcher someday, but he was dreadful as a starter in 2013.
Now here's something very, very important. With the very, very unlikely exception of Chad Bettis, all of the pitchers who helped sink the Rockies to their 12-38 record in games not started by Chacin, De La Rosa, Chatwood and Nicasio (players who are still with the team this season) are not going to be starting any games for the Rockies in 2014. This is where they are going to improve and catch people off guard.
The front office made three moves to help sure up the pitching depth this off season, and you can already see why it's paying off.
1) The Rockies shipped Drew Pomeranz to Oakland in exchange for Brett Anderson.
Now in one sense, it's far, far too early to declare any of these trades victories by themselves. Anderson is on the DL, Lyles is extremely unlikely to keep pitching as well as he has in his first few starts, and Morales is probably always going to walk too many hitters to be considered trustworthy in the rotation.
However, when lumped together you can already see why these moves were winners, because what we do know is that these three pitchers are not going to be Jon Garland, they are not going to be Roy Oswalt, they are not going to be Jeff Manship, and they are not going to be Collin McHugh. In other words, the Rockies are very unlikely to get in a position now where they feel they feel like they have to score about ten runs to win every time the fourth and / or fifth slot in the rotation comes around.
Unlike last season where the Rockies had three really good starters, a fourth who was tolerable, and then a bunch of junk, the Rockies actually have real starting pitching depth that runs seven men deep. Four of them (Chacin, De La Rosa, Chatwood, and now Anderson) are above average on the mound when healthy, and now three more (Nicasio, Lyles, and Morales) are tolerable options to send out there every fifth day. So far, with the injuries to Chacin, Chatwood, and Anderson, the Rockies have needed this pitching depth, and it's likely saved them from being a handful of games under .500. (Not to mention extra wear and tear on their bullpen)
By June, the Rockies could also have as many as three additional options for the rotation if needed. The first and most talked about is Eddie Butler who is mowing through AA Tulsa, but there's also Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek in AAA Colorado Springs who could be legitimate back of the rotation material by the middle of the season for when more injuries rear their ugly head. (I'm not including Jon Gray here because I think he will need to spend most of this season in the minors. He could be of use in August and September if things go well however)
The point I want to drive home is this; Unless the Rockies are absolutely decimated with injuries in their rotation, (possible but unlikely) they are going to pick up a bunch of wins because guys like Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Drew Pomeranz, and Collin McHugh are not starting every fourth or fifth game this summer.
The lack of starting pitching depth is the single biggest reason why the 2013 Rockies failed, and the considerable improvement in this department over the winter is the single biggest reason why the 2014 Rockies have a real shot to surprise people this summer.