The Rockies received some potentially disastrous news in camp this Sunday, as starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin has been shut down indefinitely due to right shoulder inflammation. Chacin has been scheduled for an MRI. It’s unclear how long the righty will be out, but the outlook is apparently shaky enough for the Rockies to check in on free agent pitcher Ervin Santana, although CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman reported “Rockies people remain hopeful Chacin is OK.”
This injury might not seem like huge news — the Rockies aren’t considered much of a contender this year, and the 25-year-old Chacin has slid under the radar for much of his five-year career. But Chacin deserved to be an All-Star in 2013: he tossed 197 1/3 innings with a 3.47 ERA and an equal FIP. He won’t be a fantasy star because he doesn’t strike batters out (just 5.75 K/9) and playing in Coors Field half the time puts a hard floor on his ERA. But a 3.47 ERA (and comparable defense-independent stats) are brilliant numbers in context. Chacin is just the fourth pitcher to manage a sub-3.50 ERA in Coors Field while qualifying for the ERA title (Ubaldo Jimenez in 2009 and 2010; Jorge De La Rosa in 2013; Marvin Freeman in 1994).
Of course, the league-wide decline in offense is partially to credit, but Chacin’s strong control and ability to induce ground balls (46.8 percent in 2013) were enough to compile 4.3 fWAR and 5.8 bWAR — All-Star level by either metric. Losing him would be disastrous for a Rockies team that lacks inspiring options (Franklin Morales? Jordan Lyles?) behind the starting five.
And although the Rockies don’t scream competitor, there are reasons for optimism. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are both healthy. Nolan Arenado was particularly impressive with the glove in his first run through the major leagues last season and is just 23 this year. Wilin Rosario continues to impress with his power stroke. The bullpen has a pair of strong relievers in Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle.
The Rockies are projected to win 78 games by PECOTA, last in the National League West. But aside from the projected division winners (Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles), only one NL team is projected to win more than 84 games (San Francisco, at 87). Seven teams — Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Diego, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Colorado — are projected between 78 and 84 wins, and any of those seven should be considered contenders for one of the final two Wild Card slots, even if the odds for the teams lower on the list are slimmer.
Perhaps Santana would help, but his profile is exactly the kind to suggest doom at Coors Field. He has a career 1.22 HR/9, has given up at least 1.0 HR/9 for each of the past five seasons despite playing in hitters parks in Anaheim (2009-2012) and Kansas City (2013). Although he was a ground ball machine similar to Chacin, he has consistently given up more home runs per fly ball than the league average, and it isn’t hard to imagine his fastball flying over the Coors Field fence with regularity should the Rockies sign him for 2014.
The Rockies had their best pitching season since Ubaldo Jimenez’s exit in 2013, as they sliced 130 runs allowed off their 2012 total. Unfortunately, they still allowed the most runs in the National League, and losing a pitcher like Jhoulys Chacin who has shown the ability to navigate the pitching gauntlet that is Coors Field would be a major dent to what are already slim playoff hopes. The Rockies need Chacin to return to the field, and soon.