The Rockies have a problem with their rotation that needs to be fixed if they want to contend this year, and its name is Franklin Morales. Morales wasn't supposed to be a member of the starting rotation entering this spring, but some well-timed injury voodoo has ensured that Morales has taken the ball eight times as a starter already this year and has in fact thrown the second most innings of any Rockies pitcher.
To wit, the return of Tyler Chatwood was going to move Morales from the rotation back to his intended long reliever role in the bullpen, until Brett Anderson broke his finger. Then as Jhoulys Chacin was about to make his return to the rotation and bump Morales to the pen, Chatwood injured his elbow. Both Chatwood and Anderson are on the 60 day DL, with neither eligible to return for another month (Anderson will be eligible to return June 14th, I believe, while Chatwood is out until early July), so the Rockies will keep sending Morales out there.
Why is that a problem? Because Morales can't find the strike zone. Look, the Rockies were not going to win the game last night unless their offense played better - that would have been true with any of their starters on the mound. Still, the performance by Morales last night (detailed nicely in the game wrap by RIRF) was demoralizing in that every time you looked up, a Royals hitter was rewarded with a hitter's count. Morales walked four and threw 99 pitches in five innings, with only 55 being strikes.
It was the fourth straight game in which Morales had allowed four or more runs - and in all of those games, he'd thrown 90 or more pitches, gone six innings or fewer, and thrown less than 2/3 of his pitches for strikes. Morales this year has a 5.40 ERA in 46 2/3 innings this year, and his 5.39 FIP number suggests that he's earned every bit of it. After all, it's hard to be successful when you're allowing 1.61 baserunners per inning, as Morales is.
It all adds up to below replacement level performance (-0.5 rWAR to date) from Colorado's de facto 5th starter (though he's probably number 7 on the depth chart). While the level of performance the Rockies have gotten from Morales has been an improvement over the terrible black hole that was the back end of their rotation last year, it's still not acceptable for a team with a thought of contending in 2014. So what should the Rockies do?
The Rockies are facing a bit of a roster crunch as Michael Cuddyer and Wilin Rosario look to return from injury - plus Josh Rutledge in AAA. Michael McKenry is the obvious move down to AAA for Rosario, but Cuddyer's return might necessitate the move of a bullpen pitcher (almost certainly Chris Martin) back to Colorado Springs. Rutledge would replace Charlie Culberson if and when he returns to the Show.
That's all neat and tidy, but what do you do with Morales? Morales is out of minor league options, so it probably wouldn't make sense for the Rockies to risk losing him on minor league waivers. Morales hasn't been good as a starter, but he still has value as a long reliever to this club, especially since the current bullpen doesn't seem to have anybody well suited for that role.
With that in mind, here are a few options for Colorado's next move, roster-wise:
Ride it out with Franklin, do nothing
This is the simplest answer, of course, but it might be the right one. Anderson is probably a month away from returning, which is about five or six turns of the rotation for the Rockies where Morales will be called upon as a starter. Or maybe, like RIRF mentioned in last night's game wrap comments, the Rockies could effectively move Morales to the bullpen now and go with four starters for the next few weeks because of the extra off days they have.
If the Rockies don't have faith in the other potential rotation options below, this very well could be what happens. And who knows, Franklin has been very good in 25% of his starts this year - maybe the Rockies can ride this out.
Roll with an extra bullpen arm, option down an outfielder
Assuming that Cuddyer, Rosario, and Rutledge all come back, bringing up another starter to replace Morales means that the Rockies might need to option one of their dangerous outfielders to make room. Given their relative utility, this is an undesirable outcome for me, but if I were to pick one, it would be Brandon Barnes. Barnes is playing over his head right now and his skill-set is duplicated by Drew Stubbs, except Stubbs is a little better. The Rockies might decide it's Corey Dickerson, which would be less good.
Send down Rex Brothers, keep all outfielders
For whatever reason this year, Rex Brothers is really struggling. The only two relievers outside of the aforementioned (and in this scenario, already optioned) Chris Martin that have minor league options are Brothers and Adam Ottavino. Ottavino isn't going anywhere, so it's possible that Brothers, a potential All-Star and firebreathing closer last year, is sent back to AAA for some TLC by the coaching staff. It would be a stunning turn in fortune for Brothers, but it might be necessary.
Put Morales on waivers, risk losing him for nothing
This just seems like a waste to me, as I think Morales actually does fill a need on this team with an ability to eat 2-3 innings at a time. Still, if the Rockies like their roster as is, it is an option.
Ok, so that's what the team could do in terms of juggling the roster. Who on the farm would be a potential replacement for Morales?
Players on the 40 man roster
This is an important consideration, because these players would not require another roster move by the Rockies to move up. A quick roster lesson for the uninitiated - to bring up a player to the 25 man roster, the player must be on the 40 man active roster as well. Removing someone from this 40 man roster has the consequence of putting them on waivers, available for any MLB team to claim for a small fee and a 40 man roster spot of their own.
Colorado's 40 man roster is currently full, and it will be constrained even more when Anderson and Chatwood, neither of whom are on the 40 man roster so long as they occupy slots on the 60 day DL, return from their injury. With that in mind, it's easy to see why the Rockies might be inclined to just use a minor league pitcher on their 40 man roster. So who fits that description?
Jayson Aquino technically does, but he's still in High A ball and on the DL - not going to happen. So that leaves two members of the AAA rotation as likely replacements, Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek.
Friedrich was last seen in the Show in 2012, where the 2008 first rounder threw 84 2/3 innings of 6.17 ERA ball before succumbing to injuries that he's taken a while to recover from fully (he's got a 6.81 ERA in AAA this year). Friedrich is a classic example of a replacement level starter - good enough for AAA, but he might not be an improvement over Morales at the big league level.
Matzek, Colorado's 2009 first rounder, is more intriguing, if only because his stuff is good enough to get major league hitters out. Unfortunately, he also possesses some command issues that have lead to a minor league walk rate of 6.1 BB/9 innings. He's dropped that to 4.1 BB/9 this year, but that's still a level that will get him into serious trouble against major league lineups. Still, he's an option that could be better than Morales in the short run and could give the Rockies a decent look at one of their former top prospects.
Players not on the 40 man roster
If Colorado were to make a 40 man roster move, the most likely candidates for removal are minor league relievers Rob Scahill, who has pitched in the big leagues but has been repeatedly passed over by minor league relievers who weren't on the 40 man roster like Martin and Nick Masset, or somebody like Kraig Sitton/Raul Fernandez - minor league relievers farther away from the Show.
In terms of who would get brought up, there are players like Christian Bergman at AAA (good for a spot start, probably not worth making a 40 man roster move for at this point) in contention, but more likely if the Rockies do decide to go this route would be a callup from the heralded AA Tulsa rotation.
Daniel Winkler might be the 4th most buzzed about prospect in the Tulsa rotation behind Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, and Tyler Anderson), but he might be the best option for a jump from AA to MLB, as Bryan posited last week. Read Bryan's article for more on Winkler, and with that info in mind, here's three reasons why he would be the logical AA callup:
1. He's got the best numbers of a Rockies pitching prospect this year - Winkler has a 1.07 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 42 AA innings this year with 46 strikeouts and 12 walks.
2. He needs to be added to the 40 man roster at the end of this year anyway - as a 2011 college draftee (20th round), Winkler will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall, meaning that he's eligible to be taken by another team for a nominal fee if he isn't added to the 40 man. Given his results over the past couple of years, it's a near certainty that the Rockies will put Winkler on the 40 man, so bringing him up early won't be as big of a deal as it would for Butler or Gray.
3. He's not as important as a prospect to Colorado - the Rockies have less invested in Winkler than they do in Gray, Butler, and Anderson at this point, so bringing him up potentially before he's ready is a more worthwhile risk for the Rockies to make. The 24 year old could be a very valuable MLB asset, and it wouldn't hurt for the Rockies to see what they have in him.
I think Anderson isn't a likely option given that he's currently on a 75 pitch count coming off of injury last year, but both Butler and Gray are potential fits for a callup. Of the two, Butler's slightly more advanced and would be the better pick at this point.
Still, with Butler and Gray the organization might really want to wait with those two prospects until they are certain that Butler and Gray will come up to the big leagues and not need to be sent down again. In addition, it would probably be best for Colorado in the long term to wait until Butler/Gray have improved their polish and until we are far enough into the season so that neither would accrue enough service time to become Super Two players (more expensive over their team-controlled time). Honestly, I'd prefer to not see either pitcher until September.
If I were to guess, I'd say that the Rockies would either stand pat with Morales or that they would option Brothers down and bring up Matzek for a few starts until Anderson is ready to come off the DL.
So what would you do Rockies fans? Who would you call up and how would you make it work on the roster?