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Rockies 5th starter battle likely to involve many candidates

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The Rockies' top four is set, but the impending competition for the last spot in their rotation could get real interesting.

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Most people believe that as oft-injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki goes (or doesn't go), so do the Colorado Rockies. Tulowitzki has eclipsed 150 games in a season twice in his career, and both times, the Rockies reached the postseason.

Maybe that's true, but one thing is often overlooked: when the Rockies get decent starting pitching, good things happen.

Colorado's rotation has finished a season above average (in terms of ERA-) just five times in 22 seasons. On four of those occasions, the team finished with a winning record, and twice -- in 2007 and 2009 -- the club reached the postseason. The unit's collective ERA- of 89 in 2009 contributed to perhaps the best all-around team the franchise has ever had.

The 2015 version of the Rockies doesn't appear to be likely to have that kind of season, but there are some reasons for optimism. The sample size for de facto staff ace Jorge De La Rosa at Coors Field is large enough to put some credence into his lifetime 45-14 record and 3.98 ERA there. He's been solidly above average (94 ERA-) since joining the Rockies and doesn't appear to be dealing with any lasting effects from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2011. Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek are both young hurlers coming off of up-and-down, but ultimately promising, debut campaigns in Denver.

Jhoulys Chacin might be the most important piece in the Rockies' 2015 rotation. He's a pretty good option for an actual No. 1 starter, believe it or not, when healthy. Since his rookie year, only 16 starters in baseball have been better in terms of ERA- than Chacin.

If Chacin is healthy, the Rockies will need to find only one pitcher out of a rather large pool to step into the rotation. Of course, after using 15 starting pitchers a year ago, Colorado's brass likely isn't counting on any of the team's rotation arms to remain off of the disabled list, which is why the club recently acquired back-end types David Hale and Gus Schlosser from the Braves and, in the words of general manager Jeff Bridich, might still have some things in the pipeline.

The team believes Chacin will be ready to go when the season gets underway in April, but not without a sliver of doubt.

I mentioned to Bridich that the Rockies' staff might be overlooked by analysts and other baseball media types because of the presence of young arms like Lyles and Matzek as well as solid veterans such as De La Rosa and Chacin.

"If he's healthy," Bridich interjected, after I mentioned Chacin. "Which, he looks good so far."

It's pretty clear the Rockies are cautiously optimistic about the 27-year-old right-hander with a career 3.75 ERA as a starter, which is second-best in franchise history. But they're hopeful a strict offseason plan will get him back where he needs to be.

"He has to this point done everything we agreed for him to do," Bridich explained. The Rockies laid out expectations for Chacin this offseason that included keeping his weight down and his arm in shape. His progress likely played a vital part in the team's decision to tender him a $5.5 million contract for 2015.

"He’s already throwing off the mound and doing bullpens … he’s really positive about it," Bridich added. "If the season started tomorrow, he’d be penciled in and ready to go in our rotation."

With that in mind, let's take a look at the candidates for the No. 5 spot in the Rockies' rotation, in no particular order.

Chad Bettis

It's easy to get the sense that Bridich believes Bettis was, to some degree, mishandled over the last couple of seasons. The 25-year-old right-hander went from being a top 100 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2012 season to the owner of a 6.88 ERA in 69⅓ innings spanning two big league seasons. Bettis' struggles at the highest level won't keep the Rockies from giving him another shot in the rotation, though.

"Bettis is going to come in as a starter, his more natural role, and have a chance to compete for that fourth or fifth spot," Bridich said. Bettis pitched well in limited duty as a starter down the stretch in Triple-A last season, posting a 2.95 FIP with a 22.5 percent strikeout rate and 57.1 percent ground ball rate while being stretched out in August.

Chris Rusin

The Rockies claimed Rusin off of waivers from the Cubs near the end of last season. The 27-year-old left-hander has been underwhelming in a little more than 100 major league innings, but the club likes what it sees and considers him a real option for the rotation heading into 2015.

"Rusin is a guy that we claimed that our scouts have liked as that back-end type of starter," Bridich said. "He’s a control-command guy; he sinks the ball, gets ground balls, doesn’t get in trouble with walks, forces contact and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of fear."

"His stuff isn’t going to wow you, but he’s going to compete," Bridich added. Rusin owns a 128 ERA- with middling strikeout and walk rates, but he induces grounders at a 47.3 percent clip.

David Hale, Gus Schlosser

Hale, acquired by the Rockies along with Schlosser in a trade that sent minor league catchers Chris O'Dowd and Jose Briceno to the Braves, fits the mold of what the Rockies have historically liked in a starter. Hale has poor strikeout and walk rates in limited big league action but is a ground ball machine (56.7 percent). Hale spent the majority of 2014 in a relief role but profiles as a starter, along with Schlosser.

"I think what we are going to do is have both pitchers stretched out, prepared and built up [to be starters]," Bridich told Saunders after the trade was announced last Friday. "The fact that both of these guys have started in the past was an appealing part of who they are, and of their history."

Christian Bergman

Bergman doesn't miss bats and allows a whole lot of hits, but there's one thing that he does well that most other Rockies starters don't: limits walks. Bergman surrendered just 10 of them in 10 starts a year ago. The bad news, of course, is that he allowed almost as many home runs as free passes. Despite that, he'll be in the mix after a strong Arizona Fall League showing that saw him strike out 17 batters and walk only two in 18⅔ innings.

The prospects

Everything seems hunky dory this offseason for Eddie Butler, who experienced his first real adversity as a professional in 2014. He didn't pitch well in a repeat year at Double-A and was shelled in limited big league duty. The 2012 first rounder was dealing with a frayed rotator cuff and felt the effects of a failure to adjust to a heavier workload but seems to have corrected the issue prior to what could be a pivotal year for him.

"[Butler's] been awesome," Rockies trainer Keith Dugger recently told MLB's Thomas Harding. "He's worked his tail off, and I've been proud of his effort and commitment."

Butler's conditioning might be improved, but it's fair to say the biggest help to the No. 3 PuRP would be another year in the minors. The same can be said for Colorado's other near MLB-ready pitching prospects, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson. Provided Anderson's arm permits it, all three will still be given the chance to blow the doors off of the Cactus League in hopes of breaking camp with the big club. That's not to say the Rockies are in a hurry with the trio.

"I don’t think there’s going to be some uber strict policy one way or the other on those guys," Bridich explained. "We’ll just take it guy by guy."

"We’re hopeful that the efforts we’ve made individually with each guy during the offseason and instructional league puts them in good position to have a really good start to their 2015 process," he added.

Gray might not have much left to prove against minor league hitters, but it would behoove the Rockies to find out for sure. That sounds like it will be the plan, according to Bridich, who believes Gray will benefit from the adversity he saw at times in Double-A. Gray posted a 3.91 ERA with 113 strikeouts and 41 walks in 124⅓ innings for Tulsa before being shut down late in the season due to fatigue.

Anderson, like Gray, ended last season on the disabled list, but unlike Gray, could start 2015 the same way. He won't be ready for spring training, according to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post.

Kyle Freeland, Colorado's other high-profile polished pitching prospect, isn't going to be in that mix less than a year after the Rockies took him in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft. That said, there's an outside chance the Colorado native reaches the big leagues toward the end of 2015, if Baseball America's Jack Etkin is to be believed. Bridich downplayed that notion but understands why evaluators feel that way.

"Could you make an argument for moving him quickly? Yeah, because of the stuff plus the control and command," Bridich said. "But it's his first year; kind of like Gray last year, this is his first full season. There's probably some adjustments he'll have to make and things he's going to have to experience that will determine -- a lot of that stuff is unique -- if he's ready to be pushed, then we'll push him."

"No different than Gray," Bridich added. "We'll let that take its course."