Draft 1; hook
It’s not that bad. The Rockies starting rotation is not that bad.
Transition; establish caveat-laden premise
At least, it’s not that bad right now when we can imagine a rotation comprised of five pitchers. There will be more. Since 2012, the Rockies have had seasons in which nine, six, eight and eight different starting pitchers made 10 or more starts. It’s the nature of the game. Still, heading into 2016, the Rockies rotation does not look too bad if sizing up the first five. It’s not difficult to imagine at least three out of those five posting above average seasons.
Draft 2; hook
Here we go again. The Rockies are in for a rough ride in 2016, and the rotation isn’t going to help matters
Transition; establish negative-Nancy tone
If the best thing one can say about the Rockies’ nominal ace is that he’s good for a Rockies pitcher, then there are not a lot of great things to say. Youth fills out the rotation, but young pitchers have a way of being unpredictable and mostly bad. A couple of guys look to translate promise into reality, and the other two aim to reach their ceilings as fourth or fifth starters. They’ll reach that ceiling if they are as good as the team’s nominal ace.
Draft 3; hook
This isn’t one of those plastic see through mixed bags. It’s an opaque mixed bag with an emphasis on the "mixed."
Transition; don't kill optimism but set realistic expectations
The Rockies’ 2016 rotation includes an unspectacular but steady anchor and is filled out by young arms. That’s not a bad place to be. It is critical to acknowledge, however, that question marks are written all over those young arms. The starting five might be fine, but the best case scenario is that they contribute to the Rockies’ 75 win potential.
The First Five
The nominal ace is Jorge De La Rosa. At 35, De La Rosa is entering the final year of his contract with the Rockies, and it might be his last one. If not the best starting pitcher in team history, he has been one of the most successful. He’s one of only three pitchers to throw more than 1000 innings as a member of the Rockies, and he’s done so while sitting on the high side of the "average" line. That’s no small accomplishment, and it suggests that he’s not a mere "good Rockies pitcher," but a "good pitcher."
Entering 2016, the Rockies can hope for about 170 more above average innings from De La Rosa. The leading projection systems anticipate an ERA that hovers around 4.00 to accompany an above average season. Aside from work on the mound, bigger questions regarding De La Rosa are whether or not the team will try to trade him during the season (he’d have to agree to any deal), or whether they might try to keep him around with a short-term extension resembling the one he signed in late 2014.
Chad Bettis is most likely to sit behind De La Rosa as the number two of the rotation. Bettis is a lesson in the non-linear development of prospects; they don’t check off boxes in a pre-written story until they make the majors. There are ups, downs, and unexpected turns. From 2010 to 2013, Bettis sat at various spots in top Rockies prospect lists. In 2014, he exceeded eligibility on such lists in the technical sense because of innings pitched, and he lost consideration in the aesthetic sense on account of an ERA north of 9.00.
But forget about the prospect label. Bettis posted A 4.23 ERA and an even better 3.77 DRA in 2015. Such a performance re-enters Bettis as a potential stalwart in the Rockies’ rotation. He also struck out 7.7 batters per nine innings in 2015, though he also walked 3.3. If Bettis can maintain the strikeouts and improve the walk rate, he’d turn in a season that would earn him a spot on most major league rotations.
The pitcher in the rotation with the best raw stuff and the most potential is Jon Gray. We’ve thoroughly explained why his 5.53 ERA over his first 40 major league innings should be ignored, but it’s worth repeating. Dismiss the ERA. Gray was subject to a lot of poor luck in 2015. Everything other than his ERA suggests that he’s going to have a successful 2016. He struck out nearly a batter an inning, and it’s highly unlikely that nearly four out of ten balls in play struck against Gray will continue to result in a hit. The area of improvement to look for is in fastball command. He’ll need to put the fastball where he and his battery-mate want it. Doing so should contribute to a lot of two strike counts. And once there are two strikes, Gray’s slider can then make an appearance. Here’s a chart that illustrates why that’s a very good thing:
The two pitchers most likely to fill out the rest rotation at the beginning of the season, Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Lyles, offer uncertainty. They can be treated together for a few reasons. First, they are groundballers. That trait was probably why the Rockies traded for them. Second, they don’t strike a lot of batters out. These two traits combine to form evidence that, at some point and to a certain degree, the Rockies had a pitch to contact approach with their hurlers, even if it was a byproduct of searching for high groundball rates. Third, neither has pitched much as of late due to injury. While it’s easy to look at Chatwood and Lyles, remember good results, and envision a sturdy back-end of the rotation, neither is a sure thing, even in a position and profession not known to be populated by sure things.
Since 2013, Chatwood has pitched 135⅓ innings for the Rockies. In that time, he’s posted an excellent 3.39 ERA on the strength of an also excellent 56.4 percent groundball rate. But at the same time, he’s struck out just 5.72 batters per nine and walked 3.26. For someone who throws either a two- or four-seam fastball about 80 percent of the time, the walks suggest a lack of command. In 2016, that issue might be compounded by the fact that he last pitched in the majors in 2014 and is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. Now is a good time to remember that the success rate of return is not 100 percent, and that it’s more difficult to return from a second surgery. Chatwood might find success in 2016, but he’ll have to overcome some difficult barriers to do so.
Lyles joined the Rockies prior to the 2014 season, and he’s missed time in each of the two seasons. In 175⅔ innings in those two seasons, Lyles has compiled a 4.56 ERA, a 45.7 percent groundball rate, and he’s struck out 6.15 batters per nine against 3.33 walks. Like Chatwood, the low strikeout numbers would be easier to take if he didn’t walk so many batters. As it is, it presents a deadly combination for a pitcher who calls Coors Field home: a lot of base runners and a lot of balls in play. Unlike Chatwood, Lyles missed time due to non-throwing arm related injuries, a broken hand and a broken toe. Lyles might prove to be a steady arm at the back end of the rotation, but don’t think he’s much more than that.
Major League Depth
The Rockies have a handful of pitchers on the 40-man roster that will be able to make starts when a starter misses time. They can be separated into two categories.
The first group consists of pitchers who we know can start a game in a pinch, but who might also serve as middle and long relievers. They include righties David Hale and Christian Bergman and the left-handed Chris Rusin. These three played the depth role as well as might be expected in 2015. The three combined for 209 innings over 38 starts, with a collective ERA of 5.86. If the Rockies start the season with a rotation comprised of the five names discussed above, Hale will probably start in Triple-A and be called upon in the event that someone lands on the disabled list. Bergman might start the year as a member of the bullpen and play the swingman role (as he did throughout 2015), as will Rusin, who is out of minor league options.
The other category includes two post prospects who might have futures in the bullpen: Eddie Butler and Tyler Matzek. Butler was one of the worst starters in all of baseball in 2015, as he posted a 5.86 ERA that went along with a 6.69 DRA. Butler broke camp with the Rockies in 2015, but save for a stellar spring, don’t expect it to happen again. His future as a starter relies heavily on trimming down his walks—he walked 4.76 per nine in 2015—which is what we should look for if he begins the year in the Isotopes rotation. His future as a reliever relies on the same. Matzek won’t be called upon to start games as a fill-in. He’ll re-enter the Rockies rotation if he demonstrates that he can manage his starts the way he did during the second half of 2014, when he proved how effective he can be. Matzek’s path is not at all clear, but it’s doubtful that the Rockies will call upon him before they and he are sure he’s ready.
On the Farm
The Rockies have a couple of pitchers in the high minors that can be considered both prospects and possibilities to see major league action in 2016. The first is Tyler Anderson. While Anderson, a lefty, didn’t pitch at all in 2015 due to a stress fracture in his left elbow, the 26 year old demonstrated enough polish prior to 2015 to be included here. Anderson is someone who can truly live up to the "crafty lefty" moniker, as he survives on a low 80s to high 90s fastball, a weird delivery, and deception. If the Rockies have good health in their starting five to begin the year, Anderson might leap over guys like Hale and Rusin and debut as a fill-in starter. Another name to watch is Harrison Musgrave. After a successful 2015 split between Double- and Triple-A, he could see swingman work in the vein of Bergman as soon as this season.
The higher ceiling prospects closest to the majors are Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland. Both might start the season in Double-A Hartford. If either sees the major leagues, it probably won’t, and probably shouldn’t, take place before August. If all goes well, when we write up the starting rotation before 2017, both pitchers will be contending for a spot in the rotation. (Things are not guaranteed to go well.)
While Antonio Senzatela is on the 40-man roster, he’s only there so that no team could poach him in December’s Rule 5 draft. He joins Ryan Castellani, Mike Nikorak, and Peter Lambert in the group of prospects that are compelling, but a few years away from breaking into the majors. We’ll be paying attention to all of them, but in Pebble Reports rather than big league news.
Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco compose the "are they starters, or" group of pitchers on the farm. Castro’s role in the high minors should tell us the answer to that question. Tinoco excited everyone with his 1.80 ERA over 40 innings for Low-A Asheville in 2015, but what he does in more innings for High-A Modesto will reveal much more.
In Case of Emergency
The Rockies have a couple of emergency options in the high minors. They can, once again, call on the now 30 year-old Yohan Flande. Flande has started ten games for the Rockies in each of the past two seasons. If the Rockies have to go through the same song and dance with Flande for a third consecutive year, things will be bad—so bad that we might as well call it Flan-day in beautiful commiseration. The 24 year-old Shane Carle posted a 3.48 ERA in 160 innings for Double-A New Britain. He's the rare emergency option that comes with intrigue.
The please no free agent pitchers include Aaron Harang (uh), Kyle Lohse (hm), Jerome Williams (er), and Jeremy Guthrie (ew). Some of these pitchers might retire before long, and any of the ones left would only command a minor league deal to encased in "break in case of emergency" glass. That’s why and how Aaron Laffey was around last season, and he managed to pitch seven innings for the Rockies.
Draft 1; pithy conclusion
There are potential bright spots, but this is a rotation whose best outcome is positive development on a bad team.
No additional drafts needed.