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Colorado’s starting rotation is deeper than previous seasons, with one notable omission

Jon Gray was once the future the Rockies pitching, now the organization must fill the hole he leaves behind 

Anyone who follows the Colorado Rockies has some semblance of a built-in guard against national articles that egregiously cover the team. For most (myself included) that guard is usually triggered by some mention of the tired “pitching is always a problem for Colorado” narrative. The pre-humidor days of Rockies pitching are frozen in time for some — especially when it comes to the starting rotation. But that assumption is far from the truth, and quick look at the numbers tells us as much.

Rockies SP Since 2016

Year ERA - NL Rank
Year ERA - NL Rank
2021 100 7th (T)
2020 95 8th
2019 118 14th
2018 91 3rd (T)
2017 92 4th
2016 99 5th (T)

Over the past six seasons, Colorado’s staff has been average or better relative to the rest of the National League in all but one season. The excellent starting pitching in 2017 and 2018 was the backbone of consecutive playoff appearances, and the only time the rotation was subpar in that span was the lone season the team eclipsed the 90-loss mark.

But there is a catch. 2016 was the first full season for Jon Gray, the headliner of the wave of starting pitching that has produced the best stretch of performance in franchise history. Over seven seasons, Gray produced a 53-49 record with 4.59 ERA over 829 ⅓ innings pitched for the Rockies. His name is prominent on the franchise history leader boards, including a 3.91 FIP that rank third all-time, 849 total strikeouts which sits second and a 9.213 K/9 that stands as the top mark.

But Gray departed this off-season for the Texas Rangers on a 4-year $56 million free agent deal. Plenty has been said about how the Rockies handled the situation with Gray - believing they could retain the righty before ultimately losing him for nothing at the end.

Regardless, the Rockies head into the 2022 season without one of their rotation stalwarts. But Gray alone was not responsible for the success the team has enjoyed in recent seasons. The rest of the core remains intact and, for the first time in a while, there appears to be better depth behind them.

The Core Four

Germán Márquez, Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber are the clear top four starters on the roster and are expected to collectively produce another strong season from the rotation in 2022.

Germán Márquez has received the Opening Day start the past two seasons, and could be in line for a third nod in 2022. Márquez threw 180 innings during the season, once again providing ace-level production for the team. But there is no denying he hit a wall at the end of the 2021 season.

Germán Márquez 2021

Stat 4/1 - 8/6 8/7 - 9/27
Stat 4/1 - 8/6 8/7 - 9/27
GS 23 9
ERA 3.42 7.48
FIP 3.29 5.66
BAA .214 .310
WHIP 1.15 1.66

Márquez clearly wasn’t himself over his final nine starts, seeing his numbers drop significantly across the board after his first start in August. Márquez has been a workhouse for the Rockies — his 631 23 innings since 2018 ranking as the eighth most in baseball — so it’s easy to believe his decline was a byproduct of the workload he has shouldered in recent seasons. If he’s back to his normal self this season, then those final nine outings will be easily forgotten. That is what the organization is banking on in 2022.

While Márquez experienced a tail-off in his production, no Rockies pitcher was better in 2021 than Antonio Senzatela. His 3.5 fWAR was the highest individual mark for any Rockies pitcher last season despite posting the second-highest BABIP (.324) on the staff. He was also one the best pitchers in baseball at avoiding the long-ball, posting the third-lowest HR/9 at 0.69.

His season started and ended with a thud — combining to allow 13 earned runs in just four innings pitched between the two starts — however the rest of his campaign was a model of consistency as he allowed more than four runs in just one of his 26 other outings. But the 85 ERA- Senzatela has posted over the past two seasons shows he’s turned a corner since the start of 2020, and the Rockies rewarded him for it with a five year extension during the off-season. He’ll be counted on to head the top of the rotation with Márquez again in 2022.

Kyle Freeland has also been a different pitcher since the start of the 2020 season. After a disastrous 2019 campaign that forced a demotion to the minors for much of the season, Freeland has rebounded to consistency the past two seasons.

He posted a 4.33 ERA for the second straight year and has now accumulated 2.5 fWAR over his last 191 ⅓ innings. After sitting in the mid-teens the past two seasons, Freeland’s strikeout rate jumped back up to 20.4% in 2021 — similar to his 2018 season which remains the golden standard for Freeland. It’s unrealistic to expect Freeland to pitch up to his 2018 level again, but if he can continue to be the stable arm we’ve seen that past two seasons, he’ll be a reliable mid-rotation starter once again for Colorado.

After coming over from St. Louis as the only major league player in the Nolan Arenado trade, Austin Gomber mostly lived up to the significant pressure that was put on him in 2021. Gomber provided 23 starts for the Rockies last season, posting a 1.3 fWAR over 115 ⅓ innings. It was a fine year for Gomber, but there is a case that his numbers should have been even better based on his ERA (4.53) and FIP (4.61) being around a half-point higher than their expected totals.

Freeland and Gomber were the two starters hit hardest by the injury bug last year. A scary shoulder strain in spring training delayed the start to Freeland’s season while forearm tightness kept Gomber out of action for over a month in the middle of the season before a stress fracture in his lower back knocked him out for good in the final month.

Both lefties appear healthy this spring, however, and will combine with Márquez and Senzatela to make a formidable top four in the rotation.

Fifth starter and depth options

Over the past three seasons the role of “pitching depth” fell almost solely on Chi Chi González. His 34 starts were the fourth-most for the team since the start of 2018, with Peter Lambert, Jeff Hoffman and Ryan Castellani being the other three depth pieces to make double-digit starts in that span. The Rockies have moved on from everyone in that group except Lambert, giving a full face-lift to the depth options for the rotation.

To headline the new group, Colorado inked former Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Chad Kuhl to a one-year major league deal in March. In five seasons with the Pirates, Kuhl appeared in 100 games — 84 of which starts — posting a 4.44 ERA over 439 ⅔ innings. He was moved to the bullpen for the last two months of the season, but enters Colorado with a chance to pitch in the rotation.

If Kuhl does move to the bullpen, it could open the door for a Rockies farmhand to claim a spot in the rotation. Ryan Feltner (No. 15 PuRP) pitched across four levels in 2021 and even made his major league debut in September, making two starts before finishing his year in Triple-A Albuquerque. Peter Lambert also appeared for the Rockies in 2021, making his first two big league starts since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020. Many expected Ryan Rolison to appear in the majors as well, however multiple injuries kept Rolison off the field for most of the season.

All three are back and expected to pitch a full season in 2022, and each can conceivably get multiple big league starts this season. Feltner and Rolison are already set to begin the season in Triple-A Albuquerque while Lambert is still being eased into action this spring.

Alongside the prospects are lefty Ty Blach and righty Zach Neal, both of whom signed as minor league free agents with an invitation to spring training. Blach, a Colorado native, last pitched in the majors in 2019 for the Baltimore Orioles while Neal has been pitching in Japan since last appearing in the bigs with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018.

On the farm

Along with Feltner, Lambert and Rolison the Rockies have two additional minor league starters on their 40-man roster. Noah Davis (No. 19 PuRP) was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in 2021 in a trade for reliever Mychal Givens and is expected to start the season in Double-A Hartford. As is lefty Helcris Oliveraz (2021 mid-season No. 13 PuRP), who is in his second season on the Colorado 40-man roster.

Expected to join the Double-A rotation this season are former second-round picks Chris McMahon (2021 mid-season No. 8 PuRP) and Mitchell Kilkenny (No. 23 PuRP). Former Michigan Wolverine Karl Kauffman (No. 20 PuRP) spent almost all of his first professional season in Hartford and will likely graduate to Triple-A Albuquerque in 2022. Meanwhile, 2021 draft picks McCade Brown (No. 29 PuRP) and Joe Rock (No. 16 PuRP) are expected to get their first full seasons at the A-Ball levels while righty Jaden Hill (2021 mid-season No. 9 PuRP) is expected to debut later this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2021. Sam Weatherly (No. 14 PuRP) will like start the season at High-A Spokane while Jordy Vargas (No. 21 PuRP) headlines an intriguing international class that will pitch in either the Arizona Complex or Dominican Summer League later this summer.

Final Thoughts

Despite the loss of Jon Gray, starting pitching is still set to be an area of strength for the Colorado Rockies. Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela headline the rotation, joining Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber to give the Rockies a balanced one-through-four. The fifth spot is still up in the air, and may change hands multiple times throughout the season. But the front office seems to have learned from the lack of depth in previous seasons, offering more arms behind the rotation stalwarts and better positioning the team for success in 2022.