2014 Team Preview: Can the Colorado Rockies pitch their way into contention?

Brian Garfinkel

Hitting has never been a problem for the Rockies' franchise. Pitching, on the other hand...

Good pitching always beats good hitting, as the saying goes. This must explain how the 2013 Colorado Rockies could score the second-most runs in the National League and finish last in their division. We cannot explain how their pitching staff led the NL in WAR despite having the league's highest ERA, but it comes as no surprise that the Rockies had pitching issues. They had the lowest strikeout rate and the third-highest walk rate in the league, but somehow allowed fewer home runs than nine other National League teams. In 2014, the recipe for success is the same as it has been since the team's inception in the early 1990s: pitch well enough to give the offense a chance. This year's staff has already been touted as potentially the best in franchise history -- a dubious honor, to be fair -- but will that be enough?

Manager: Walt Weiss (2nd year)

2013 record: 74-88, 5th in NL West

SB Nation blog: Purple Row

Other Rockies coverage: Denver Post, Rox Pile

First series vs. Tigers: August 1-3 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

Despite only playing in 126 games in 2013, Troy Tulowitzki led all MLB shortstops with 5.6 WAR. It was the fourth time in the past five years that he has been worth five wins, but the Rockies only have one playoff appearance (in 2009) to show for it. Despite logging at least 500 plate appearances in four of those five seasons, Tulowitzki has earned a reputation for being somewhat fragile. While he has landed on the disabled list three times in the past four years -- including a groin surgery that ended his 2012 season in late May -- his on-field performance has not suffered. He may miss a game or two every now and then, but count on another spectacular season from the best shortstop in the game. Third baseman Nolan Arenado had a solid rookie season -- more on him below -- and the two form one of the best shortstop-third baseman combinations in the game.

The other side of the infield is... less promising, to put it nicely. DJ LeMahieu has put up 1.5 WAR in part-time work at second base over the past two seasons. This has been a boon of production for a position that Purple Row dubbed "a merry-go-round of mediocrity" over the last 15 years. Josh Rutledge was the Rockies' Opening Day second baseman in 2013, but put up a .630 OPS in 314 plate appearance. He will have to hit to see consistent playing time, as LeMahieu is the better defender. At first base, aging lefty Justin Morneau will replace newly-retired lefty Todd Helton. Morneau hasn't been the same player since he missed the end of the 2010 season with a concussion. Hindsight is 20/20, but the Rockies probably would have been better served to pony up the money for Kendrys Morales.

One way to solve the first base problem would be to move catcher Wilin Rosario -- a below average defender behind the plate, at best -- over to first base. However, given the franchise's lack of any viable backup options at catcher, it probably would not make the team any better. The move would make sense, especially if Tom Murphy can hit in the high minors. Rosario finished fourth in the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year voting and posted an .801 OPS with 21 home runs in 466 plate appearances last year. Giving him another 150-200 plate appearances a year while protecting his long-term health seems like the smartest direction to take, but expect Rosario to don the tools of ignorance for at least one more season.

While the organization's hesitancy to move Rosario from behind the plate makes sense (for the time being), the decision to trade Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros for Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles is not quite as defensible. Sure, there is talent in this outfield, but Fowler has been a lock for a .750 OPS with double digit triples and steals since his rookie season in 2009. With Carlos Gonzalez staying in left field, the team will rely on some combination of Drew Stubbs, Corey Dickerson, and/or Charlie Blackmon in center. Stubbs is a better defender than Fowler and mashes lefties, but has a pitiful .652 career OPS against right-handed pitchers. Dickerson has the best bat of the three, but would be a liability in a larger-than-you-think outfield at Coors. Blackmon is a nice fourth outfielder and could fit the other half of the center field platoon if last year's .824 OPS against right-handers is for real. Reigning NL batting champion Michael Cuddyer will be the primary right fielder.

Rotation

A struggling pitching staff was dealt a big blow when staff ace Jhoulys Chacin was shut down for at least a week with a shoulder strain. Chacin allowed a 3.47 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 197 1/3 innings in 2013 and led the team with 126 strikeouts. Lefty Jorge De La Rosa led the team with 16 wins last year, but got off to a slow start with a shaky outing over the weekend. He put up a 3.49 ERA in 167 2/3 innings after missing nearly all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. De La Rosa will be 33 years old shortly after Opening Day and is in the last year of his contract, so a big year benefits both him and the club.

Regardless of whether Chacin is healthy or not, former Oakland A's left-hander Brett Anderson may be the one to get the ball on Opening Day. Still only 26 years old, Anderson put up some promising numbers before injuries started to take their toll. He missed the majority of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery, then missed three months in 2013 due to an ankle injury. The A's saw no reason to keep paying his escalating salary, but Anderson's ground ball tendencies should play well in Colorado if he can stay healthy. Right-hander Tyler Chatwood put up a 3.15 ERA in 111 1/3 innings last year, but a 1.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 6.7% home-run-per-fly-ball rate (HR/FB) suggest that some regression is in store for the 24 year old. Elbow troubles have limited him so far this spring, but he is on pace to be ready for Opening Day.

In 2014, the recipe for success is the same as it has been since the team's inception in the early 1990s: pitch well enough to give the offense a chance.

Right-hander Juan Nicasio is the front-runner for the fifth starter spot, with Jordan Lyles, Franklin Morales, and Christian Friedrich also in the mix. Nicasio finally broke the 100 inning barrier in 2013 after injuries limited him in 2011 and 2012, but a 5.14 ERA didn't exactly inspire confidence. Reports suggest that Nicasio's velocity has improved now that he is healthy. No matter who the fifth starter is, he likely will not hold the job for long. Top prospects Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray have limited minor league experience, but both are former first round picks who are expected to move quickly through the farm system. Butler, the team's top pick in 2012, will likely get first crack at the bigs, but I would not be surprised to see both in the majors in 2014.

The Rockies' bullpen allowed the highest ERA in the National League in 2013, but the righty-lefty combination of Adam Ottavino and Rex Brothers was surprisingly effective in the eighth and ninth innings. Ottavino allowed a 2.64 ERA and 3.15 FIP in 78 1/3 innings, while Brothers held opponents to a .209 batting average and struck out over a batter per inning. His 1.74 ERA was much shinier than his 3.36 FIP, which was a product of his high walk rate. Veteran LaTroy Hawkins has been tabbed as the team's closer, but Brothers proved his competence with 19 saves in 20 opportunities in 2013. Boone Logan and Matt Belisle will also see plenty of innings. Slated to make a combined $9 million, the two will be one of the more expensive middle relief tandems in the game.

Twin peaks

Pitching in a stadium sitting a mile above sea level has proven to be a difficult task over the past 20 years. The Rockies have only had three pitchers accumulate 5.0 WAR or more in their 21 seasons as a franchise. The Tigers had three five-win pitchers in 2013. Coors Field will never be an attractive landing spot for free agents, but help may finally be on the way. Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler are both top-50 prospects and widely considered to be the best one-two punch in the minor leagues. The Rockies subtly acknowledged that assertion when they showcased the two in a split-squad matchup last week. Neither is expected to make the team out of Spring Training -- Butler only has six Double-A starts under his belt, while Gray has five starts at Advanced-A -- but both have the potential to give the Rockies' pitching staff a fighting chance at success in the near future.

Player to watch: Nolan Arenado

Arenado has been on top prospect lists for years because of his bat, but he made waves with his glove during his rookie season in 2013. He put up a UZR of +20.7 and was worth 30 defensive runs saved, earning him a Gold Glove and a seventh place finish in a loaded NL Rookie of the Year vote.

Nolan_arenado_defense_medium

Arenado struggled at the plate, hitting a pedestrian .267/.301/.405 with 10 home runs and 52 RBI. He showed signs of improvement, posting a .742 OPS in the second half, but hit the "Rookie Wall" with a lackluster September. Arenado's defensive numbers will likely decline, but better offensive numbers will make him a good bet to top the 2.7 WAR he posted in 2013. With he and Tulowitzki in the fold, the Rockies have one of the best left-side infield tandems in baseball.

Outlook

Of the six teams to finish in last place in 2013, the Rockies seem like the only team that could feasibly leap into contention in 2014. None of the other cellar dwellers have a pair of talents like Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, and the Rockies' supporting cast of position players is also solid. It's not unreasonable to think that the Rockies could hit their way to a wild card spot, especially given how mediocre every other non-Dodgers team in the NL West looks on paper. However, their pitching staff was awful in 2013 and it's hard to see them improving enough to keep the offense afloat. They don't look like a last place team, but I would not expect playoff baseball in Colorado in 2014.

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