The tenure of former Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who took over part way through 2009 and managed the maligned club through the end of last season, the Rockies win total fell steadily every year. From 92 wins to 83 to 73 all the way down to 64 last season — the fewest in franchise history. Entering their 20th year of existence, the Rockies are yet to figure out exactly how to build a suitable pitching staff for the high altitude of Coors Field. Last year, amidst their worst season ever, they went a little bonkers trying.
Early in the year, the team decided to switch to a four-man rotation and lower the pitch limit on each starter to 80 per start. When the experiment failed, they switched back a few months later. The Rockies gave up more runs than any other team in the NL with an especially embarrassing 6.70 ERA at home.
The epic failure brought on change for Colorado—at least as much as their hyper-loyal philosophy will allow—as Jim Tracy stepped down to make way for new manager Walt Weiss. Weiss was the shortstop for Colorado from 1994 to 1997 and helped guide the Rockies to their first playoff appearance in the ’95 season. Now, with no professional managing or coaching on his résumé, he finds himself in the driver-seat.
At the front office level, long-time General Manager Dan O’Dowd switched roles with Special Assistant Bill Geivett. The two were already acting like co-GMs and now that seems to be even more true. O’Dowd still has the title, but now Geivett will look after Major League operations while O’Dowd will focus more on player development. All the re-jigging won’t do much to quell a lack of pitching and overall philosophy by the Rockies as they struggle through what may end up being the dark ages of their young franchise.
Of the pitchers currently projected by MLB Depth Charts to constitute the Rockies five man starting staff, only Jeff Francis threw more than 100 innings last season – and he only managed 113 IP. His peripherals were decent as he pitched to a 4.09 xFIP, but his ERA was 5.58. After three years of underpitching his peripherals, it seems likely that they just don’t do a great job of predicting what Francis will actually do.
Fellow veteran lefty Jorge de la Rosa made three September starts after missing more than a year recovering from Tommy John surgery. He’s entering the final guaranteed year of his contract (there is a club option worth $11-million for 2014) and will need to prove that he’s fully recovered and healthy. The Rockies are counting on de la Rosa to give them much needed innings this year and he could be a valuable trade asset if things go south—which they probably will.
Right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio are expected to hold down spots at least to start the year. Neither made a full season worth of starts in 2012 after each man missed time with injuries. In his 14 starts, Chacin posted a disappointing 1.41 K/BB ratio which will need to improve just to replicate his 4.43 ERA. Nicasio, meanwhile, returned from a broken neck suffered at the end of 2011 when he was struck by a line drive only to require had knee surgery in June relegating him to only 11 starts. He posted decent peripherals, however, and if he can stay healthy might end up being the best pitcher on the staff.
The final spot will probably go to young left-hander Drew Pomeranz who was decent by Colorado standards last season but he was heavily guarded by the team, averaging under five innings per start. The reins should come off a little more this year, but he’ll need to improve on his 4.28 walk-per-nine rate.
You could make the case that the best three pitchers on the staff in 2012 all pitched out of the bullpen. Rafael Betancourt finally got a chance to close out games at the age of 37 and did not disappoint, pitching to a 2.81 and a 4.76 K/BB ratio. Matt Belisle, meanwhile, pitched in more games (80) than any other NL reliever in 2012 and posted a 2.1 WAR according to FanGraphs while left-hander Rex Brothers was excellent in 75 appearances of his own. He’s the logical predecessor of Betancourt in the closer’s role.
Joining those three will be Wilton Lopez who was acquired in a trade this winter from Houston. Lopez had the best walk-rate among Major League relievers at 1.09 BB/9 in 2012 and keeps the ball on the ground. He has the profile to succeed in Coors—in that he’s actually a good pitcher. Long-men Adam Ottavino, Outman and Rosenbaum will compete with Edgmer Escalona, Will Harris and returning former closer Manny Corpas for the final few spots.
The Rockies managed to finish third in runs scored in the NL despite their best player, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, playing in only 47 games due to injury. Much of that had to do with playing half their games at Coors Field where they averaged exactly six runs per game and hit 100 home runs. On the road, Colorado hit just 66 home runs and scored just 3.36 runs per game.
Tulowitzki’s injury history could be becoming more of a problem. In his six year career, he’s topped 140 games only twice. His three major injuries—a quad strain in 2008, a fractured wrist in 2010 and his groin problems last year—are unrelated, but he seems to get hurt a lot. When healthy, he’s probably the best all-around short stop in baseball and a truly elite player. He’ll still be around for the next good Rockies team so they’ll need him to find a way to stay on the field.
The only other player signed long-term with any hope of being around the next time the Rockies are good is left fielder Carlos Gonzalez. His splits against lefties and on the road are a bit alarming and his contract—of which there are five years and $71-million remaining—could become an albatross if those numbers continue on their current downward trend.
Outside of Gonzalez, the Rockies have solid depth in the outfield with three other players capable of starting. Dexter Fowler is the center fielder and Michael Cuddyer will see the majority of time in right, while Tyler Colvin—who had somewhat of a breakout season in 2012—is expected to start the year as the fourth outfielder. Fowler posted a career-best 123 wRC+ in 2012, but was below average on the road. Cuddyer, meanwhile, struggled against right-handed pitching while Colvin was much worse against lefties. The two could end up in a highly productive platoon if the Rockies are willing to sit Cuddyer more often.
Aside from franchise cornerstone Troy Tulowitzki, the infield is full of question marks. The top of the current depth chart features Todd Helton at first, Josh Rutledge at second and Chris Nelson at third. Helton is no longer a productive hitter and is also an injury risk. Colvin and/or Cuddyer could end up seeing more time at first this season. Rutledge hit well in the second half of his rookie season and could improve—he played mostly short last season in the absence of Tulo. Nelson is keeping the seat warm for top prospect Nolan Arenado who should make his debut at some point this year. Converted catcher Jordan Pacheco and offseason acquisition Ryan Wheeler (acquired from Arizona for reliever Matt Reynolds) could also see time at third until Arenado is ready.
Catching will be Wilin Rosario who needs to develop a better approach since he struck out almost four times more often than he walked, but the power is excellent even if it is buoyed by Coors. Veteran Ramon Hernandez will back him up again.
The Rockies had the worst defensive efficiency in all of baseball last season and didn’t do much to improve it for 2013. Fowler and Gonzalez have the skills to be good defenders in the outfield yet both find ways to be below average while Cuddyer is awful in right. The infield defense should be a little better with Rutledge playing second and a hopefully healthy Tulowitzki. If the nerve injury he suffered in his groin last season limits his mobility, things might get worse before they get better.
The Rockies were by all accounts one of the worst teams in baseball last season. The one positive—their ability to score runs—is made much more palatable by the effects of their home park. With the division as competitive as it has been in years, the Rockies could be on the outside looking in for a while. There are some nice pieces down on the farm such as outfielder David Dahl and shortstop Trevor Story, but outside of Arenado, they won’t help for a few more years. There’s a case to be made that with the Astros moving over to the AL, the Rockies could be the worst team in the National League.
2013 Prediction: 66-96, 5th NL West