Distance wise, Jon Gray is further away from the 25 men on the Rockies major league roster than he's been at any point since being drafted by the organization, but don't let that fool you. While nearly 3,000 miles of American landscape separate the beaches of south Florida from the forests of the Pacific northwest where Gray turned in his most recent impressive start for the Albuquerque Isotopes, they might as well be connected by a baseball wormhole. Because if what happened on the mounds of Miami and Tacoma Thursday night is any indication of what the Rockies have to look forward to, it's hard not to see Jon Gray in Denver sooner rather than later.
Before we get to Gray though, we have to talk about Chris Rusin, since he's both at the center of the dreadful performance turned in by the Rockies against the Marlins, and also a very important part of the Gray equation right now.
Honestly, what the Rockies got out of Chris Rusin in this game against the Marlins is what I expected to get from him as soon as he was called up for emergency duty in Cincinnati. While Rusin does have command of four different pitches, they're all below average offerings that major league hitters should feast on once they get a grasp of what's coming, and let's face it, Rusin had as soft of an entrance into the majors this season as you could possibly have.
Game No. 1: He faces the Reds, but they don't know he's going to be the opposing starter until a couple of hours before the games starts, leaving them short on time to prepare for him instead of Jorge De La Rosa.
Game No. 2: Jordan Lyles starts in Philly against a lineup stacked with left handers, but exacerbates his toe injury early and has to leave for the
game season. This allows Rusin to enter the game in relief for 4.2 innings against a weak lineup where he also has a major platoon advantage. Couldn't ask for a better recipe for success.
Game No. 3: This is more difficult. Against the Marlins in Coors with no element of surprise, but he gets another piece of good fortune. This time, it's from the Rockies offense who supply him with ten runs of support in just four innings. To Rusin's credit, he threw strikes and got the outs, but he was put into a situation where all he had to do was not implode.
However, in this game, with no safety net to protect him, Rusin fell flat on his face. I hate to hammer him because he did do a nice job with the opportunity that presented itself in his first three games, but the reality is he just doesn't have the stuff to consistently produce at this level. We already know who he is as a pitcher (he'll be 29 in October), and there's nothing in his body of work before his call up in late May to suggest he's anything more than a polished Triple-A pitcher who can sometimes catch unprepared major league hitters off guard.
He's done his jobs for the Rockies so far and hasn't cost them any games (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here and assuming they would have lost this one regardless of who started since the offense was a complete no show), but you have to figure that things are going to get ugly if the Rockies allow this experiment to continue much longer.
* * * * *
Just as this snooze-fest in South Beach concluded, Jon Gray took the mound for the Isotopes in Tacoma. He had an up and down beginning which included a two-run third, but he got things locked in late. The last 19 batters he faced in his eight innings of work recorded zero hits and just one walk against him.
This is a major sign of growth from Gray. He's getting better as the game goes on, and in this particular game, he was untouchable once he got in his groove. It's just the latest in what's now become a collection of consecutive strong outings since his early season struggles. In his eight outings since the start of May, Gray boasts an impressive 2.68 ERA. But it gets even more impressive over his last five starts, where the number drops to 1.84, and he's gone at least six innings in every outing.
He's still having some hiccups, but the flashes of brilliance are becoming longer and longer while the rough moments are becoming shorter and shorter. The trend is our friend right now.
* * * * *
So, here we are with these four thoughts to consider:
1) Chris Rusin is not a viable option in the rotation going forward if the Rockies are serious about prioritizing winning games this year over developmental strategy. Obviously teams try to do both every year, but there are moments where they don't mix well, and this could be one of them. (Whether or not they SHOULD do this is a different argument than if they WILL do this)
2) So far, the Rockies have operated like a team that's trying to squeeze as many wins as possible out of 2015 from a roster management perspective. This doesn't mean they've always made the right moves, but it does mean that several guys from Tyler Matzek to Drew Stubbs, to Eddie Butler have gotten the boot after poor performances. With the club currently sitting five games under .500, their margin of error is very, very thin if they think they're going to be playing meaningful baseball deep into September.
3) Jon Gray has now overcome enough adversity at the Triple-A level to make you at least entertain the idea of a call up. Ideally, you'd want him down there a little longer, but he's close enough to getting things to click now that calling him up is no longer outrageous, especially with no more important clocks mattering for quite some time.
4) Gray is probably one of the five best pitchers available for the Rockies right now. With Jordan Lyles done for the year, Tyler Chatwood still a long, long ways off, Tyler Matzek shut down from game activity, Tyler Anderson injured all year, and Eddie Butler unable to consistently throw strikes, Gray's name rises up this list pretty fast, especially with his recent string of performances.
Maybe the Rockies give Rusin one more chance against the Astros at the end of this road trip, and maybe they make Gray prove he's really over his April demons one more time; but make no mistake, if the Rockies choose to go that route, and the results are anything close to what we saw here, the screams to put Jon Gray in the major league rotation will not only be deafening, but perhaps for the first time, justified.