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It’s time to bet big on starting pitcher prospects — because we have to.

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There is nowhere to turn in the Colorado Rockies starting rotation after Márquez, Freeland, Senzatela and Gomber. A Jon Gray-sized hole has surfaced — an expected reality, one might suggest — but with his departure to the Texas Rangers has come a Rockies cause of concern.

The team needs a workhorse.

Starting pitcher five-and-divers will not play in Colorado for as long as the bullpen has a bottom-five ERA. That streak is now four years running. The 2022 horizon is bleak, muddied and uncertain without 150 innings from Gray, and if the prospects in the wings were any more ready, they would have likely debuted better — or debuted at all — in 2021.

This is where the 2012 Rockies signed 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. Ladies and gentleman: the horizon right now is not as bad as it was before.

It’s still not ideal, as the Rockies assess how important it is for starters to pitch 150-plus innings. Here’s what the Rockies can (reasonably) do in their search for a new workhorse.

  1. Tap into the minor league reserve: Ryan Rolison, Ryan Feltner.
  2. Give Peter Lambert a huge workload in his first full year post-Tommy John surgery
  3. Fork over the cash that wasn’t spent on Gray for an established starter (one that must agree to pitch 5,280 feet above sea level).
  4. Sign a Chi Chi González-type starter that is non-tendered or similar (or somebody that would score at least a 5/10 on the Jamie Moyer meter)

The Rockies were reportedly willing to fork over $35-$40 million to Gray over a three- or four-year contract, right around a $10-$12 million paycheck per year. If this is the extent of willingness by the Rockies to secure somebody that wanted to pitch in Denver, it is questionable to think a different, comparable starter would accept a similar figure.

Option 3 is likely out, at least for a marquee arm.

If a rebuild is not declared, this attitude may distance the Rockies from opening the minor league floodgates into the big leagues. Options 1 and 2 are therefore muddy and uncertain, unless a prospect has a breakout spring training or a solid April in Triple-A.

Option 4 remains, but a non-tendered revival is far from a competitive move with Scherzers and Gausmans flying off the shelves.

It’s time to replace 149 innings

Signing a fringe starter is a decent way to score an innings eater, which could be exactly what the Rockies need to keep themselves from calling somebody up prematurely. Even the 107-loss Astros in 2012 had 33-year-old Wandy Rodriguez on their staff — for over 200 innings.

Gray tossed 149 innings for the Rockies in 2021. That is 149 innings that the fifth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball did not have to throw.

It doesn’t mean that an older Chi Chi González (or a Dereck Rodríguez, or Jamie Moyer, or 2021 starter Jhoulys Chacín) is the ideal path the Rockies should take, though. The Rockies scout, draft and develop, says general manager Bill Schmidt.

It’s time to see how valid his words are — and to see if that route is successful with the current executives in place.

Fifth Starter Candidate: Ryan Rolison

The Rockies have been thin with left-handed relievers in recent history. Ryan Rolison could have been a solution during the 2020 pandemic season when the Rockies had an expanded postseason to work with.

They went after Mychal Givens instead, a rational move for late-inning help, but left Rolison camped out at the alternate site with ‘SP’ heavily tagged to his name. He still hasn’t pitched in the big leagues.

In 2021, Rolison posted a 5.27 ERA between the complex league, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. His journey suggested there was development to be had, and his ERA backed it. The Rockies didn’t run the risk of calling him up too early, which could have featured its own set of issues (see Feltner below).

Appendicitis shut down Rolison for the back half of 2021, or he would have likely taken the big league reins for some September starts. That honor went to someone else, and it wasn’t ideal:

Fifth Starter Candidate: Ryan Feltner

6 13 innings of big league work were not favorable to Ryan Feltner: he debuted straight out of Double-A Hartford and allowed eight earned runs in a Rockies uniform. He pitched 2 23 innings for Triple-A Albuquerque in the final month of the year and it wasn’t favorable either (5 ER).

If the Rockies learned anything from Ryan Castellani, it’s that the course of a starting pitcher can change at the drop of a hat. Castellani’s spring training was abysmal; if it wasn’t, the Rockies wouldn’t have needed to pull in Jhoulys Chacín for long relief help. (Gray may have also been traded at the deadline if Castellani were there to cover as a back-end starter.)

This isn’t to say Feltner’s September is a direct comparison to Castellani’s March, but it’s tough to reason Feltner is equipped to start the season in the bigs without a head-turning spring training.

The sour taste of September remains — but if it were any more concerning, wouldn’t the Rockies have made a greater effort to keep Gray around?

Fifth Starter Candidate: Peter Lambert

Here’s your guy — presumably. Peter Lambert is the most experienced of the three, and the most likely to roll into the rotation like he belongs.

He may not be ready to take on 149 innings, though.

When Opening Day arrives, Peter Lambert’s Tommy John scar will be 21 months old. That is plenty of time for an elbow to feel back to normal, but the rest of his body hasn’t taken on 100-plus innings since 2018. Lambert pitched a total of 16 innings in 2021, and while offseason training can help prepare a player for increased workloads, it’s tough to expect Lambert to turn into a workhorse right away.

The likes of Matt Dennis, Karl Kauffman and Chris McMahon look on from afar. The scouting, drafting and developing will continue, and the search for a dependable starter could be subject to that pipeline alone.

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