How the Rockies can capitalize on their strong start

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockies have exceeded the expectations of most this year - how can they turn their hot start into another Rocktober?

It's May 21st and the Rockies sit six games above .500 (26-20) and two games out of the division lead after last night's walk-off win against the Giants. They have a +52 run differential, easily tops in the NL (doubling San Francisco's 2nd place total) and second in all of MLB (man those A's are good). Heck, Baseball Prospectus ranks the Rockies as the top team to date in the NL in 3rd order winning % - which measures a team's expected record based upon quality of opposition and other underlying statistics.

In other words, the Rockies find themselves squarely in the thick of things during the middle of a home series against the division leader and in advance of their longest road trip of the year - a 9 game swing to the East Coast. This performance is at the very upper range of what I could have expected for the Rockies at this point in the year - my end of season expectation for Colorado coming into this year was 80 wins.

While Colorado could certainly end up in that range, the team is now projected for 83 wins by both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs - so they're projecting the team to play slightly below .500 from here on out. Both sites give the Rockies a 37% or so chance at making the playoffs this year after their strong start. If those odds seem deflated, it's because the top two projected records in the NL on Baseball Prospectus belong to Colorado's NL West rivals (on FanGraphs the Dodgers and Giants are projected 2nd and 3rd behind the Nationals).

Any way you slice it, there are still 116 games left in the season and the Rockies have some work to do if they want to capitalize on this strong start and crash the playoff party. Here are some potential steps the Rockies can take to maximize their chances of doing so:

Minimize starts by Franklin Morales and Franklin Morales types so that Morales can serve as the long man

Or maybe we should maximize the amount of times that Franklin Morales starts against Madison Bumgarner at Coors Field, as Morales has out-dueled his fellow lefty in both starts against him. That was the kind of performance by Morales that leads Rockies fans to say, "Gee, maybe Morales isn't that bad". And it's true - Morales can pitch very well at times, but the fact is that he's just not someone I want the Rockies to be relying on in critical games over the next month.

I understand that he's 7th on Colorado's starting pitcher depth chart, but the fact is that Morales has thrown the second most innings of any Rockies pitcher this season. He's a below replacement pitcher by rWAR and his 5.30 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, while not as bad as they appear due to a tough hitting environment, are still not good enough for a playoff contender.

I wrote about the options for replacing Morales last week and my conclusion was that Colorado should bring up Tyler Matzek or maybe Daniel Winkler to bridge the gap between now and when either Brett Anderson or Tyler Chatwood returns from injury. Not only will this give the Rockies a look at a prospect that could become a contributor to the rotation now and in the future, but also the team will get a long reliever in Morales that can be effective for multiple innings consistently. That's a piece the bullpen has been sorely missing all year and it's a piece that will contribute to keeping the bullpen fresh into the dog days of summer.

Part of minimizing these kinds of starts is getting the top five guys healthy and productive, which would require Anderson and Chatwood to return as their old selves and for Jhoulys Chacin to re-capture his 2013 form. If that occurs (with Juan Nicasio ostensibly in AAA if Jordan Lyles continues to be effective), this rotation should actually be an asset for the Rockies down the stretch. The bullpen too, provided that Morales is able to be that effective long man the Rockies have been seeking.

Look for upgrades anywhere they can be had in the lineup

Right now, Colorado's lineup doesn't look like it has a lot of holes. After all, only four of the 13 position players on Colorado's active roster are below average offensively per wRC+ (they have a value below 100 in the metric), a stat that RIRF looked into in depth last week, and one of those players is Wilin Rosario - who should bounce back.

Still, that doesn't mean that the Rockies will be fine all year. Here are a few players Rockies are currently counting on that they might want to look at upgrading:

DJ LeMahieu

Though LeMahieu has played excellent defense and is hitting .296 this season, his utter lack of power has meant that he has been a below average offensive player. When that .360 BABIP regresses toward his career .339, DJ's offensive profile will go from slight below average to way below average quickly. The Rockies need to be prepared to have a player ready to take over at second if and when this slump occurs.

The obvious choice here would be Josh Rutledge, who hit very well at the end of 2013 and continued that in limited time in 2014. The need for a replacement here isn't a big one - LeMahieu's defense means he brings a lot to the table even if he is slumping - but Rutledge provides a power-speed combination that could turn up Colorado's dangerous offense another notch.

Brandon Barnes

Barnes is playing very well so far, but this is the same player that had a .289 OBP and 76 wRC+ last year - and the same player that was projected as having the lowest true average projection in the league by Baseball Prospectus coming into 2014. He most likely will regress. Fortunately, the Rockies have the outfield depth to absorb this regression - maybe even without dipping into their AAA reserve.

Jordan Pacheco

His receiving behind the plate has been below average and his offense hasn't been too much better. I like the guy, but Pacheco has no business being on a major league roster at this point. Michael McKenry probably isn't any better (certainly not offensively), but maybe he'd call a better game for you. If Tom Murphy gets his act together at AA this year, I'd strongly consider seeing what he can do at the big league level in September.

Charlie Culberson

He's the 25th man and he's keeping Rutledge's seat warm. That walk-off homer was pretty great though.

Be acceptable on the road, dominate at Coors

This one is obvious, so I'll be brief. The Rockies have played 22 at home (16-6) and 24 on the road (10-14). The team doesn't even need to be that good on the road to contend: 37 to 40 wins away from Coors Field will probably be enough to punch a ticket to the playoffs if they win at a .600 clip at home. Colorado's upcoming nine game road swing will go a long way toward making me a believer in this time if they can be successful on the trip.

Keep the key players healthy

This one is also obvious. Without Tulo for an extended period of time, Colorado's playoff chances go from decent to remote. His health, along with the health of the top of rotation and the rest of the core players, will go a long way toward determining Colorado's 2014 success.

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