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Colorado’s starting rotation boasts a high ceiling

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With the addition of Austin Gomber, Colorado could have one of their all-time rotations in 2021.

If the five presumed starters can show signs of peak form, the Rockies may have one of their best rotations ever.

Colorado has retained their primary suspects to open games on the mound. Year-by-year consistency has fluctuated for a handful of Rockies arms, but now that a consistent 162 games is again on the horizon, the future looks bright for a young core of starters that are now seasoned veterans.

Locks for the rotation: The four returning starters

Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray are back. This has been the norm dating back to the 2019 season where the four have combined to start 146 of the past 222 Rockies games. This timeframe includes Freeland’s 2019 stint in Triple-A, and a shortened 2020 for Jon Gray when he was placed on the Injured List.

Márquez has been the biggest workhorse of the mix, recording 255 23 innings pitched over the past two seasons (41 starts). Since 2018, Márquez has averaged 6.24 innings per start, the most of the four. If he is named Colorado’s Opening Day starter this year, it will be the second consecutive season he receives the nod. After posting career figures in ERA and FIP last year, it can be tough for Bud Black to reason against giving him the ball on April 1.

Three of the aforementioned four arms have made an Opening Day start with the Rockies (Freeland, 2019; Gray, 2017/2018). The only one that hasn’t — Senzatela — led the entire team in bWAR last year. His 3.44 ERA was the best among all Rockies pitchers that made a start in 2020. His .268 average against on balls in play (BABIP) was significantly lower than the other three primary starters. Senzatela’s hard hit percentage was around his career average in 2020, so it will be interesting to follow if his BABIP — a stat that shows weak correlation year after year — will again work in his favor. There was also a wide discrepancy between his ERA and FIP last year (3.44 to 4.57), and FIP is often used as a more ’predictive’ pitching metric.

Kyle Freeland’s 2020 resurgence was a welcome sight after his 2019 struggles. Further progression will push him even closer to the numbers of his 2018 campaign, a year that earned him fourth-place honors in the NL Cy Young voting. He has publicly spoken about the Rockies’ chances in 2021, suggesting the team can “shock the world” in the coming months. Such remarks — particularly from a Colorado native — are enticing for everybody looking to prove themselves this year.

Jon Gray was forced to cut his 2020 season short due to right shoulder inflammation. His strikeout percentage was nearly cut in half compared to his yearly figures from 2016-2019. Gray’s numbers may have worsened across the board in 2020, but a full offseason has given his shoulder several months to recover. A non-shortened, ‘normal’ year in 2021 will bode well for the routines he thrived on, most notably in 2016 and 2017.

The newcomer

Welcome to Colorado, Austin Gomber! If he pitches in the regular season like he has in the spring thus far, he is in line to dominate as a member of the five-man rotation. All of his outings this spring have been starts.

In the Cactus League thus far: 7 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 2 BB, 8 K.

Gomber made his big league debut in 2018, pitching 75 innings for the Cardinals that year as both a starter and reliever. In 2020, the only thing that slowed his big league ERA of 1.86 was a positive COVID test that forced him out of action for 21 days. Gomber worked early in the season as a reliever, working his way up to four starts in his final six regular season appearances.

Paired with Gomber’s immaculate ERA from last year was an xFIP of 4.75. A mere four percent of his fly balls turned into home runs in 2021. (10 percent is around league average.) It will be interesting to monitor those figures as he comes to Denver; he appears confident that his curveball will continue to play well no matter where he throws.

It could also be of benefit to use Gomber as a high-leverage, Josh Hader-esque reliever — somebody that can slam the door shut and has experienced that bullpen adrenaline with a postseason team. Colorado is running slim on lefty relievers, but if Gomber continues his 2020 strength into 2021, it would make sense for the Rockies to use him as a starter and give him a more extensive workload. It could be necessary, given the cast of arms behind him.

Depth options

Chi Chi González and Dereck Rodríguez appear to be the next candidates to receive starts. González was non-tendered by the Rockies this winter and then re-signed, while Rodríguez was designated for assignment by the Giants last year, appeared at the Tigers’ alternate site for a few weeks, and was ultimately released by Detroit this offseason. González has settled in this spring after some tough early showings (9 23 IP, 4 ER), while Rodríguez hasn’t really shown well in his new digs (8 IP, 9 ER).

Ryan Castellani made nine starts for the Rockies in 2020, the fifth most on the team. He also posted a -0.6 fWAR, and was designated to the backfield games this spring after command issues plagued his early outings (2 IP, 7 ER, 5 BB). If he can right the ship quickly, he will at least recover some candidacy to crack the starting rotation moving forward. He was optioned to Triple-A on Tuesday.

Unlikely for 2021

Peter Lambert underwent Tommy John surgery last summer, or else he would be another starting option this year. Lambert made 19 starts with the big league club in 2019, but a forearm strain last March progressed to his eventual UCL reconstruction. The Rockies may elect to keep the 23-year-old out of action in 2021, as the end of the regular season will come 14 months after his elbow procedure. (A standard Tommy John recovery often takes over a year.)

On the farm

With the 2020 minor league season cancelled, plenty of arms went largely unseen after spring training broke a year ago. The fruits of their labor will soon be on full display, and their progress may lead them toward an expedited path to the big leagues.

Ryan Rolison (No. 1 PuRP) was confined to the alternate site in 2020. The Ole Miss alum has yet to make his debut, although he did pitch in the Rockies’ summer camp intrasquads. The left-hander recorded 131 minor league innings in 2019, mostly in High-A Lancaster. MLB.com has set Rolison’s big league ETA for 2021, but we will likely see him make his Double-A and/or Triple-A debut before then. (There is a slim chance he works in the big league bullpen, as the Rockies are running thin on lefty relievers.)

José Mujica (No. 29 PuRP) made his big league debut last year, although he entered in one of the toughest situations imaginable and was sent to the alternate site immediately after. He has made 82 minor league starts in 90 appearances with the Rays organization, so he could be more ‘big-league ready’ than several other prospects.

Helcris Oilvarez (No. 10 PuRP) has been in the Rockies’ system since he was 16. The now-20-year-old has thrown five innings in the Cactus League this month, allowing just two runs but walking six (and hitting another). His curveball has been shaky on occasion this spring, but his electric mid-90’s fastball — from the left side — is a huge source of optimism. It is presumable that he will spend a few more years in the minors before a hopeful big league debut. (MLB.com says 2023.)

Lucas Gilbreath, the Legacy High School alum (Westminster, Colo.), has collected 59 minor league starts in 66 appearances. MLB.com’s prospect rankings say we will likely see him in the big leagues this year. He has recorded 5 23 Cactus League innings in six outings this spring, so there is a chance we will see Gilbreath vie for a short relief spot instead. He has bounced between starting and relieving before; his first two seasons at the University of Minnesota were spent in the bullpen, and they bookended a summer where he made starts in the Northwoods League for the St. Cloud Rox. His third and final year in the Big Ten was spent as a starter, further setting the tone for his minor league career to this point.

A few other arms in the system have been seasoned at the collegiate level but still face a similar fate: Chris McMahon, Sam Weatherly and Karl Kauffman have yet to throw a professional inning.

McMahon (No. 7 PuRP) was the Rockies’ second round draftee in 2020 out of the University of Miami. The ACC product posted a 1.05 ERA in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his best mark in three seasons with the Hurricanes. McMahon has worked his fastball up to 98 and shows a pitch mix that can induce a fair share of ground-ball outs.

Weatherly (No. 17 PuRP) was taken in the third round last year out of Clemson University. He posted a 0.79 ERA in three starts with the Tigers, working a fastball up to 96 and showing a low-80’s slider as his “best pitch.”

Kauffman (No. 11 PuRP), a 2019 second-rounder, is projected to debut in either 2022 or 2023. The right-hander spent three years at the University of Michigan, leading them to a runner-up finish in the 2019 College World Series. Kauffman has worked his fastball as high as 96 and shows an “above-average” changeup. He proved as a workhorse for the Wolverines, and a pandemic has allowed for plenty of rest since his college career ended in Omaha.

A 2016 first-rounder remains in the mix: Riley Pint (No. 22 PuRP) was not selected in the Rule 5 draft this winter, so he stays in the system. Pint debuted with the Grand Junction Rockies in 2016 and made 37 appearances — all starts — in his first three professional seasons. Only three of his 21 appearances in 2019 were starts, but it will be interesting to monitor his upcoming season after such an extended minor league stoppage. Pint has yet to pitch above High-A and did not receive an invite to the 2020 alternate site.

In case of disaster

Perhaps the biggest disaster would be the following:

  • If the big league rotation has some injuries
  • If Chi Chi González/Dereck Rodríguez struggle to fill in
  • If up-and-coming prospects take a while to acclimate back to the minor leagues

The Rockies could pursue a free agent like Zack Godley or bring back a player like Tim Melville. It might not be the best recipe for a rebuild, but a disaster would call for somebody to eat a big chunk of big league innings. This would ensure a starting prospect isn’t called up prematurely.