On the heels of the great news of the Rockies signing Antonio Senzatela to a one-year $3 million deal earlier in the week, it seems like a good time to take a close look at the rotation heading into 2021. Before jumping into the details, it’s important to confront one major problem: the rotation is not complete because isn’t officially set. We know Germán Márquez will lead the way, followed by Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, and Jon Gray, but that fifth spot is a scary, dark mystery. It could go to Ryan Castellani, who’s coming off a brutal welcome to the majors in 2020. It could be Peter Lambert, who offered promise in 2019 but missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery. There are also always dark horse candidates like Chi Chi González or Derrek Rodrídguez, who both signed a minor league deal with the Rockies, and could possibly show up in spring training ready to be starters again. Finally, the Rockies could still sign a free agent or pull off a trade for another starter, but, to be honest, I couldn’t even type that sentence with a straight face or any kind of genuine hope. Here’s a good case for a veteran like Taijuan Walker. So, at least for this article, I will focus mostly on the fab four and throw in sprinkles of Castellani and Lambert, who are probably the favorites for the fifth spot at this point.
Building off 2020
Márquez had another solid season, raking up 81 2/3 innings over 13 starts with a 3.75 ERA, a 1.261 WHIP, and 73 strikeouts compared to 25 walks in 2020. While he finished with a 4-6 record, the bullpen also blew a lot of could be wins and the offense didn’t back him as well as it should have. He pitched like we would expect, like the Rockies need, and he should do so again in 2021.
The bright spots of a dreary 2020 campaign were the returns of Freeland and Senzatela. In a brutal 2019 when Freeland was hit hard and often, he was sent down to Triple-A and just struggled with a 3-11 record and 1.581 WHIP. Senzatela, using only a two-pitch mix of a four-seam fastball and high-velocity slider was also banged up in 2019, finishing with a 1.749 WHIP while still managing to post an 11-11 record. Both reversed course in 2020, changing their windups, regaining their confidence, and recording successful comeback seasons. Senzatela led the MLB in reduced ERA from 2019 to 2020, going from 6.71 to 3.44 for a difference of -3.27 and Freeland was second on that list, dropping his ERA from 6.73 to 3.33 for a difference of -2.40. They were in pretty good company considering the second-biggest drop was Trevor Bauer, who is still available as a free agent if the Rockies want to abandon their thrifty policies and compete in the NL West.
On the downside, Gray regressed. After a stellar 2019, Gray only pitched 39 innings in 2020 with an ERA of 6.69, and a 1.436 WHIP. His velocity and strikeout rates were down, he was inconsistent, and his season ended early with shoulder inflammation. Castellani got some good experience as a rookie and logged 43 1/3 innings, but he also had more walks (26) than strikeouts (25), while also giving up 12 homers. Gonzalez only had six appearances (four starts), struggling mightily with a 6.86 ERA while surrendering 16 runs in 19 1/3 innings.
The Rockies success came with pitchers who bounced back and listened to pitching coach Steve Foster. An Athletic article earlier this week by Nick Groke highlights how Foster worked with Senzatela to add a changeup that helped keep hitters off balance and installed a new delivery motion that was more efficient in energy use under the same theory that banished Freeland’s high-leg kick. Groke said, “What they both needed, the Rockies devised, was to work toward the plate earlier. They were tardy in their windups, pulling the ball from their glove too late in the process and remaining too upright too late in the motion. It led to wasted energy, bad command and lifeless pitches.”
Groke also noted how Foster said Senzatela was hesitant to make changes until he bombed in 2019. Look what happened when he opened up to change, as Foster said: “The player has to be ready for the information. And some of it was convincing Antonio, you know, ‘your numbers since you’ve been in the major leagues have been good, but they can be great.’” We got a glimpse of that in 2020 and maybe Senza can keep progressing in that direction.
Outside of Marquez, the Rockies pitchers aren’t the kind that can just come out and stream-roll teams year after year. They have to keep changing the playbook. They can’t be predictable and they can’t just rely on what they have always done. They need to remain one step ahead. But the pitchers need to be open to this and the Rockies have to be creative and use analytics to try to outsmart other teams. Considering the flight of personnel in the analytics department, this is a stiff challenge.
In a Bleacher Report article titled “Fixing MLB’s Worst Starting Pitching Rotations for 2021,” the Rockies are noted as one of the seven worst to make the list. Though 2020 was mostly about the Rockies problems, one of the shining beacons was the starting rotation, but even when you compare that to the rest of the league, it’s not good as Rockies were 20th in the MLB with ERA of 4.83. Writer Joel Reuter says it this way, “The directionless front office does not appear ready to throw in the towel on this core, but Colorado can’t hope to contend without at least one significant addition to the starting staff and a return to form by Gray.”
Reuter’s solution is for the Rockies to make a deal for Kyle Gibson, a Texas Rangers right-hander who is a groundball pitcher who might not come with too expensive of a price tag (he currently has a two-year $17.3 million contract).
Whether it’s Gibson or any other starter, the Rockies would be wise to bring in another experienced starter to the rotation who could also be a buffer in case Gray doesn’t bounce back or Freeland or Senzatela stumbles, or just because the Rockies are asking a lot of Castellani and/or Lambert.
The youth of the rotation is the biggest reservoir of hope for the Rockies, but it’s also cause for concern. Márquez, who turns 26 in February, Freeland, who turns 28 in May, and Senzatela, who will be 26 next week, all had their rookie seasons in 2017 (Márquez pitched 20 2/3 innings over six appearances in 2016). Gray, at the ripe old age of 29, is the veteran of the crew, having made his debut in 2015 with 40 2/3 innings over nine appearances that season before going 10-10 in 29 starts in 2016. In April, Castellani will be 25 and Lambert will turn 24.
In 2020, the Rockies were second in the majors with 48 games started by pitchers who were 27 or younger (second only to the Marlins at 53). On one hand, this is great. It means the Rockies have control of many of these players in the long term and that they are cheaper than older pitchers with proven success. Marquez is currently locked into a 5-year $43 million deal that goes through 2024. Gray is set to make $6 million in his third year of arbitration and will be a free agent after the 2021 season. Freeland will bring in $4.5 million in 2021, which is his second year of arbitration, keeping him on track to become a free agent after 2023 season. Senzatela, who made $575,000 in 2020, is now at $3 million this season with two more years of team control before becoming a free agent in 2024. Lambert and Castellani are bringing in $575,000 a year and are under team control through 2026 and 2027, respectively. This is all good news for a team that doesn’t want to spend money. Gray will also be pitching for a future contract this season, with the Rockies or another team, so that adds some extra incentive.
On Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote an article about how 2021 could be an extremely taxing season on young pitchers whose development could have been stunted in a shortened 2020 season, or for minor leaguers, no season at all. They now have to switch back to a full, 163-game seasons and many teams are worried that transition could be damaging to young arms. Verducci points out that limiting young arms, especially pitchers who are 25 and younger, has been a trend in the MLB over the last decade and even longer. Seeing guys like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior carry the Cubs in 2002-03 and then break down scared teams into taking a more “staircase” approach of setting an inning limit for young players before the season starts and then increasing that number on a yearly, individualized basis. They don’t want to increase too much from the year before. Coming off a shortened 2020 season makes this even harder. Verducci quotes former Astros managers and current Tigers manager A.J. Hinch: “Thirty teams are doing this. With the Astros we tried to stay somewhere in the 20% to 30% range [of maximum added innings per year], though it’s always a little different if a guy did it before but was coming off an injury. I don’t think you can have one philosophy nowadays. It’s so individualized to what each arm and body can handle. This year will be a challenge. What’s different this year is 30 teams are going to go through it.”
Castellani pitched 40 1/3 innings last year, which was fourth-most on the team. Lambert pitched 89 1/3 in 2019 before missing all of 2020. How much should they pitch in 2021? It will be tricky and require long-term planning on the Rockies’ part in order to not rush the development of these two arms. What about doing everything possible to help with the longevity of Márquez and Senzatela, who are both currently 25 years old. Evidence would have you believe the Rockies don’t keep up with trends or listen to analytics, which could be even more problematic than usual this season. Bud Black will need to move beyond gut feelings and asking pitchers how they feel. And the Rockies will need to have more back-up plans than just bring up the next young guy and see how long he can fill a spot in the rotation. We need an approach like the one Marlins general manager Kim Ng is talking about: “I think as the ways we measure stress get more sophisticated those items are easier to track. “It’s not just going on, asking your pitchers, ‘How are you feeling?’ Guys will always tell you they’re fine. We’ve made strides technology-wise in monitoring these things.” These things consist of shoulder monitoring, flexibility and strength checks, and “three-dimensional motion capture technology to flag warning signs” on things like arm angle and release point.
Please tell me that Bridich and company are planning on some plan to “monitor these things.” Without adding players through free agency or trades, or even if the Rockies go that route, this kind of development philosophy is key to not only more wins in 2021, but also to the long-term success of the franchise.
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Mychal Givens, the 30-year-old right-handed reliever, and the Rockies agreed on a deal for $4.05 million for 2021. When the Rockies acquired Givens in a trade with Baltimore in August, he had one year left on his contract that carried over. Hopefully, Givens can improve from his performances in a Colorado uniform last year when he gave up seven earned runs on nine hits, four of which were homers, and four walks in 9 1/3 innings over 10 appearances. If he can get back to producing more ground-ball outs and walking fewer batters, he can be more like the pitcher who finished the 2020 season with a 3.63 ERA instead of the 6.75 ERA he had with the Rockies.
This seems bonkers that a guy like DJ LaMahieu, who hit .336/.386/.536, won another batting title, and is an outstanding defensive player doesn’t always have a locked-in contract, regardless of pandemic-strapped budgets. The Yankees can’t say they don’t have money like the Rockies do. They are held to a higher standard. More is demanded of them. This should be the top priority for New York general manager Brian Cashman, “Unless he’s trying to imitate Bridich’s incompetency for retaining all-star ballplayers,” as Kyle Newman says.
Well, dang it. He only cost $6 million. There goes my wish for signing Archie Bradley in an attempt to bring more beards to deliver a stronger Rockies bullpen.
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