Amid the hype of the Colorado Rockies’ big-name, high-priced bullpen and offensive superstars Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, the team’s starting rotation is somewhat overlooked, but critical to success in 2018. Anchored by young, mostly homegrown arms, the starting staff may well be the best in franchise history, and if it is, expect big things from the Rockies this season.
There are four names that, barring injury in Spring Training, can be essentially penned into the Rockies’ starting rotation for 2018. Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland all showed flashes, if not extended stretches of, brilliance in 2017 and all four are back for 2018 and should be linchpins of the rotation.
Gray is the Rockies’ unquestioned ace, having started both Opening Day and the NL Wild Card Game in 2017. A foot injury in April limited Gray to just 110 1⁄3 innings last season, but they were quite impressive. Gray posted a 3.67 ERA in 2017 with a 3.18 FIP, the second-best mark in franchise history, striking out 112 and walking just 30. Gray was especially effective down the stretch, with a 2.44 ERA and .631 OPS against him in August and September, and at home, where he posted a 3.13 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in eight starts. If Gray makes 30 starts for the first time in his career in 2018, he could well be part of the NL Cy Young discussion when all is said and done.
Despite being limited to 15 starts in 2017 by a knee injury, Anderson showed signs that his stellar rookie season in 2016 was no fluke. His full season numbers were unimpressive, a 4.81 ERA and 4.67 FIP in just 86 innings, but it is important to remember he pitched a significant portion of those innings with a balky knee. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair the knee in late June, Anderson returned with a dominant September, posting a 1.19 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 22 2⁄3 innings in the season’s final month.
The youngest of the four, the 23-year-old Marquez was tabbed as a dark horse Cy Young candidate in 2018 by MLB.com’s Richard Justice. Marquez finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, posting a 4.39 ERA and 4.40 FIP. Marquez’s 95 MPH fastball and knee-buckling curve are a scout’s dream, and the scoreless starts he pitched against the Cubs, Indians and Diamondbacks in 2017 are a manager’s. His ceiling may be the highest of any member of the rotation, including Gray.
A Denver native (because we’re obligated to mention that), Freeland became just the second pitcher ever to take a no-hitter into the ninth inning at Coors Field on July 9 last season, allowing just one hit in 8 1⁄3 innings and striking out nine against the White Sox. Freeland was perhaps the most consistent of the Rockies starters last season, with a 4.10 ERA and 4.57 FIP in 156 innings. He did strike out just 6.2 batters per nine innings in 2017, but remains a solid mid-rotation option, and perhaps more, entering 2018.
The Battle for Fifth
Behind the four rotation stalwarts is brewing quite the battle for the fifth and final rotation spot, as veteran Chad Bettis tries to hold off the more inexperienced Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela for the role.
After missing most of the 2017 season fighting testicular cancer, Bettis made a memorable return to the Rockies in mid-August against Atlanta, pitching seven shutout innings. He made nine starts in total during which he was inconsistent and almost certainly not at full strength, seeing a two mile per hour velocity dip across the board. If he can return to his 2015 form, a season that saw him post a 4.23 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 115 innings, he will make a fine piece of the rotation puzzle.
The centerpiece of the Troy Tulowitzki trade three years ago (yes, it’s been that long), Hoffman likely has the highest upside of the three fighting for the fifth rotation spot. The ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft and a consensus top 50 prospect in baseball entering 2017, Hoffman struggled in his first extended exposure to the big leagues, posting a 5.89 ERA and 4.80 WHIP in 99 1⁄3 inning. That said, he would not be the first young pitcher to struggle as a rookie and turn it around quickly, if that is in fact what he does.
Senzatela was probably the biggest surprise for the Rockies in 2017. With no experience at Triple-A, he broke camp with the big club and posted a 4.68 ERA in 134 2⁄3 innings with the Rockies last season, including a 3.49 mark in April and May. That said, Senzatela was utilized out of the bullpen 16 times last year, most near the end of the season. He did find success in his relief role, with a 3.04 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 23 2⁄3 relief innings, and the bullpen may be where his fastball-slider combination plays the best.
On the Farm
Even with multiple graduations last seasons, three of the top 10 PuRPs are starters that could see action with the Rockies in 2018. Ryan Castellani, a 21-year-old right-hander and the No. 6 PuRP, has been on Bud Black’s mind, and tongue, since the Rockies manager arrived in Colorado. Castellani is likely to start 2018 with Triple-A Albuquerque.
Yency Almonte, the No. 8 PuRP, dominated at Double-A Hartford last season, earning a midseason promotion to Albuquerque. Despite some struggles, albeit as a reliever, during the 2017 Arizona Fall League, Almonte seems to be getting a decent look from the Rockies during Spring Training, allowing a run in five innings of work in the first week of games.
If the Rockies look to a southpaw from the farm, it will likely be No. 10 PuRP Sam Howard, who posted a 3.32 ERA last season as a 24-year-old between Hartford and Albuquerque.
If Catastrophe Strikes
This is typically where you find the names of free agents left over on the scrap heap in early March, but in this case there are actually several big names still available should the Rockies find themselves in immediate need of rotation help. Jake Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner, is still on the market, as are veterans Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn, among others.
If the Rockies need an internal option beyond their top seven or so starters, Harrison Musgrave and Zach Jemiola are both still with the organization, though most if not all of their prospect hype has worn off.