LOOKING AHEAD TO 2017 – THE ROX OPENING DAY PITCHING SQUAD (FORECAST).

My prior article took a look at who is likely to be on the 25-man roster of positional players. Again, the future is always murky, with trades, developmental growth in prospects, and utter failure by players on the 25-man to perform. But the positional roster looks very solid and has good talent in the minors to back it up.

 

So what of pitching. Well, again, the farm system is rich. And the rotation is much improved. And the bullpen? Well, I make my kids go to bed and stop watching whenever Weiss goes out to take out the starter. My kids do not need nightmares like that in their heads disturbing their sleep. Don’t want to expose my children to such horrors. Scar them for life (watching Braves baseball on TBS in their horrible 80s did that too me…its why I am crazy today).

 

The bullpen is likely to be overhauled. But that doesn’t mean the team isn’t already thinking about who will be there Opening Day. Thankfully, baring injuries, the rotation look stable…and ready.

 

Rotation (Top 5)

Jon Gray (#1 and Opening Day starter – 2nd Year)

Tyler Anderson (#2 – 2nd Year))

Tyler Chatwood (#3 – 6th year leaving out TJ recovery year – FA 2017)

Chad Bettis (#4 – 5th Year, FA 2021)

???

 

Okay, wimping out on the 5th starter but, back to that in a minute. First off, Jon Gray’s progress this year, including his slump in August, has to excite fans. He is learning every start to pitch, not just throw. I anticipate this off-season more work on his curve and slider but…he has pitched well and been a competitor on nights when his stuff is down, a great sign for a future ace. While MLB only ranks his as the 20th best in terms of future value of the rookies this year in baseball, I think that is very low (Stephen Matz who does not have #1 stuff is ranked #11…again, visit Colorado occasionally…we have a great state). I think he will be better than Ubaldo largely because I think he can repeat his delivery (another great sign of progress this year is his delivery and motion). I still think Gray is more in the Gerrit Cole category, not the Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndegaard category but, a real #1.

 

Have to be honest but I didn’t expect this level of greatness from Tyler Anderson. People seem to think you can’t win without a 95+ fastball, but Anderson (more than a crafty lefty), has a deceptive motion that makes his fastball look faster. And he has fantastic control. Will he take a step back in Year 2? I don’t think so, partly because he is a more mature player (age 26) than most rookies. And because he reminds me of a certain Hall of Famer in terms of stuff – Tom Glavine. Anderson has tamed the Coors Field beast and been brutal for opposing teams on the road (though his ERA is far better in day games than night games…weird). I think Anderson has a chance to be an All Star occasionally in his career and deserves some CY Young votes for his excellent year (ERA+ of 137!), not in a top 5 way, but a top 15 way. Remember, he pitches at Coors which should make him look even better. Won’t because voters and writers are so lazy but, should.

 

Tyler Chatwood is the enigma, and if they decide to trade a starter, it would be Tyler. Though he seems to be loyal to the club and vice-versa, especially after the team’s work with him during rehab. But his inability to pitch well at Coors, and dominance on the road (believe he still has the best road ERA for starter over 60 innings in the whole of baseball). If I am a GM on another team…I call on Tyler. He’s still cheap and if you can get that ERA away from Coors, you have a solid #2. Even his WHIP is low on the road (1.14) amazing for a guy who doesn’t strike out a lot of people (but also gives up some of the weakest contact when pitching on the road). Chatwood either needs to figure out what Gray and Anderson have about Coors or…for his best and the team’s, a trade might need to happen.

 

Chad Bettis has pitched like a #2 the last month, and I think a lot of us after last year thought that was what he would be (with Tyler Anderson sitting out 2015 it made sense). He took a step backwards in the middle of the year but here is the thing. That is what you expect out of prospects (he was drafted in 2010 in 2nd round). This is the beauty of a year like 2016. Yes, we wanted playoff baseball but most of us expected another 2015. If you miss the playoffs then the next best thing – see your pitchers (and position players) who are young take the time and learn. Bettis has learned. He has refined. He has become a heck of a pitcher of late. If those lessons are permanent, well, you have a potential #2, if they show up time to time, you have a great #4. The only negative is his K/9 dropped a full point from last year’s 7.7/9 to 6.7 this year. But some of that reflects mid-season struggles but it also is a case of realizing a ground ball to short on 2 pitches is of more value than even a 3-pitch strikeout. Strikeouts are nice when you have a man at 3rd with less than 2-outs. But they exhaust pitchers and if you can get out other ways…you take it! Especially at Coors where 100 pitches seems about the limit for guys if you want them fresh in 5 days. But his April/July (big part of that run post-All Star break) and September have to excite you (Apr 3.77 ERA, 1.065 WHIP .636 OPS allowed, July 3.55 ERA, 1.184 WHIP  .663 OPS allowed, Sept 2.11 ERA, .609 WHIP, .442 OPS allowed). I think Bettis has the chance to be a big surprise in 2017. The team seems to hit for him which is why they have won 15 out of his last 18 starts and he leads the team in wins. But the guy pitching now has confidence, trust his stuff, and has a 7.05 K/BB ratio in September. Walks are the big key to winning in baseball…and Bettis is showing us a lot…please carry into 2017

 

Okay…5th starter. Yikes. I think we can sadly say goodbye to Jorge De La Rosa, who one day should have his number retired at Coors. After seeing highly praised pitcher after pitcher be destroyed pitching here, along came hot-headed Jorge in 2008. with great work by a spots psychologist and former pitching coach Bob Apodaca, he became…well, at times, a real ace. Jorge has been great…until the last year. Unless they work out a deal to bring him back as a reliever (his stuff…over 1 innings, could be devestating), but otherewise, I think it is over. I suspect someone will give him $10 mill to be a starter, and that isn’t happening here.

 

So if not De La Rosa…who? Well, this is what September has been about. Let us be frank, Jeff Hoffman is not ready to be a big league starter. Remember, he is still only 1.5 years back from his TJ surgery. He is refining his control. And his stuff which should dominate is still hittable. A number of prospect experts have soured on him, seeing him as best a #4. He has struck out less than 6 batters per 9 since his call-up. He has been hard hit, especially at Coors. And simply needs development. The experts notice this is not a new trend. His performance at AAA this year was really up and down. But at least he was striking out more than 9 batters per 9. But also walking 3.3/9 for a K/BB ratio of 2.82, not good enough at Coors. But there is still a lot of talent there and I believe he is a future 1, 2 or 3 with this club. Maybe not in 2017 but 2018. But again, if you aren’t making the playoffs what you don’t mind is seeing guys struggle in their rookie campaign…if they are learning. Jeff is.

 

After Hoffman? Well Wednesday we get to see German Marquez, who was simply the best pitcher in the Rox farm system this year. He dominated AA with a 2.85 ERA in 135.2 innings with a 1.16 WHIP and 126Ks. In AAA he held his own (age 21) with a 4.35 ERA in 5 starts a 1.16 WHIP and 29Ks in 31 innings. Scouts question his 3rd and 4th offerings but…again, developmental time. He has a chance…a chance, to be a solid middle of the order starter (or a 9th inning arm). He will likely start in AAA unless he is lights out in Spring Training but if anyone stumbles, I suspect he will the 1st call. This has a chance to be a steal for the Rox who had to give up Corey Dickerson and a now struggling prospect to get Marquez and McGee. The other potential starter in the hunt for #5 is Kyle Freeland. Another guy moved to AAA despite not being lights-out in AA, Freeland was taken just 1 spot after Hoffman. There is real talent in the big lefty from Colorado. His numbers this year weren’t bad. At AA in 14 starts and 81 innings was a 3.87 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 51Ks (way down and a reason scouts have soured on him). Then in AAA in 73.2 innings he had a 3.91 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP and 57Ks. He is a solid ground ball pitcher and his walks have improved a lot since his drafting, down in AA to just 19, for a 3:1 ratio. Freeland has a chance with a great Spring to be there in the #5 spot or the other choice if a starter fails or a need arises.

 

As for starting prospects, the team has a  lot of guys in Low A, High A and AA that are intriguing. Riley Pint is years away (but showed good progress in Grand Junction), Antonio Senzate;a, who I think has a chance to Jhoulys Chacin Mark 2, was hurt with a shoulder issue most of the season. Again, like with Anderson, the current regime in the GM and player development group was careful – healthy over a rush job. Ryan Castellani, who was at Modesto this year has a chance to be #3, 4 or 5, but not til 2018 (3.81 ERA, 1.23 WHIP with 142Ks in 167.2 innings, nearly 3:1 /BB ratio). Now if he gets to AA and flourishes, a quick move to AAA could happen and then…Peter Lambert at Low-A this year has been carefully managed by the team, limiting innings but focus on development. He is more 2019. But the other 3 guys who could fill the 5th spot during the year are Sam Howard (Great in Modesto, finished strong in AA), Harrison Musgrave (great in AA…so-so in AAA), or fast mover former 6th rounder Jake Wynkoop, another lefty who pitches but doesn’t throw, who had a 2.68 ERA in Modesto with a 1.10 WHIP and a surprising 71Ks in 77 innings. The team is high on him but his ceiling is probably a #5 starter.

 

Of course this team also knows failure in starting pitching prospects. And the perfect case study is…Eddie Butler. I love Eddie, great guy. But whether he was rushed in 2014, or something went bad in his mechanics or body…he can’t get out major league hitters. In AAA he had a decent season, but also may have set the record for lowest K/9 in history at less than 3/9. But the biggest issue, I think, is mental. Coors Field especially got in his head. Butler was a fast riser, someone looked at as a #3 starter or a 9th inning guy. Whatever happened to that Eddie Butler, he no longer exists. I would love to see Butler traded and given the chance to work it out in a nice pitchers park. But there is always a warning. There are lots of former prospects who bomb at the big leagues…early in the career but then…figure it out. Granted there are far more full failure than these guys but you look at Kyle Hendrick, J.A. Happy and last year’s Cy Young winner in Chicago and it provides a good warning. Talent properly refined comes out.

 

The Rox may also sign a veteran to fill that #5 slot. I doubt it after recent failure and budget constraints (there was a reason Kyle Kendrick only cost $5.5 million), the #5 starter is probably already on the AAA or major league roster.

 

Bullpen

Closer – Adam Ottovino (7th Year, FA 2019)

Late Innings

Carlos Estevez (2nd Year)

Jake McGee (7th year, FA 2017)

Jason Motte (FA 2017)

Chad Qualls (FA 2017)

Sam Moll (Rookie)

Middle and Long Relief

Chris Rusin (6th Year, FA 2021)

Jordan Lyles (7th Year, FA 2018)

Harrison Musgrave (Rookie) – Long Man

 

I have listed a 9 man bullpen. This assumes no trades and no new deals. Relievers are expensive (but valuable). After last year’s disaster with Motte and Qualls, the team would pursue guys more 30 years old than 35+. And have to be honest…I don’t think they will end up being able to sign anyone. Both because pitchers don’t want to come to Coors and they won’t break the piggy bank, not after their recent spate of issues. I think the most likely free agent signing for the bullpen this off-season is…Boone Logan. A guy they know and has now done it at Coors, that makes him valuable. The question is…cost.

 

I could see a situation where McGee or Qualls is dealt this off-season, teams hoping to get cheap relief that failed at Coors but has a good track record (Motte’s shoulder is too scary for most teams). McGee especially is intriguing, as he has pitched better since his knee injury and has experience in the AL East, which people just assume makes you a future Hall of Famer.

 

So as much as we all want real talent in the bullpen, I think the team maybe stuck. Remember, they had to give up Corey Dickerson to get McGee. It would take Blackmon to get a guy who would make a huge improvement in the bullpen…though the team may decide to do that.

 

So what then of the bullpen. The simple fact is there is a lot of talent in the bullpen but it just hasn’t performed consistently. But that talent has grown this year. Again, 2016 has been a good year to learn on the job (or get healthy). With that said, the closer on Opening Day is going to be Adam Ottovino. He has that disaster in LA (when after the first two batters it was obvious he had nothing that night but was left in there…argh! Just because you are a closer doesn’t mean each night you have to close (the ongoing negative impact of Tony LaRussa). Adam’s slider makes him a potentially dominate closer. Hitters know it is coming but…doesn’t matter. He has thrown more fastballs this year – strain reduction on elbow maybe – and has had good velocity and movement. I can see him being better than Fuentes or Street, in the 35 out of 40 saves (with the Rox winning 3 of the 5 blown save games) category. Until someone takes it, I think the job of closer in Zero’s.

 

Then the late inning guys. Losing Boone Logan will be tough. Finally healthy we can see why the Rox gave him 3-years at $15 million total. He has been good against lefties and righties (.451 OPS vs Lefties, .587 OPS allowed vs. Righties). But his performance his year, entering his Age 32 season in 2017, has priced him out of the Rox range. I suspect he will get in the range of 3-years, $20 million…too rich for the Rox blood, despite being the only consistent arm from April to today in that bullpen. His spot is going to be taken I think by Sam Moll, another lefty, who throws hard and had a decent season in AAA, with a 4.50 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP but with 39Ks In 47.1 innings but 19 walks. Again, 2016 was a developmental year for him but he sits as the best lefty option the team has and that means pitching late against the lefties of the NL West. Chris Rusin could hold that role at the beginning of the season, but he is valuable as a 2-inning guy. Rusin might be the team MVP to be blunt. More on him shortly. After Moll is Estevez. When you are named Wild Thing, you know that is not a compliment. Estevez had a dominating July, but other than that his stuff was undone by bad location and control. He has to fix that or that wonderful power arm will be useless.

 

Assuming McGee is not traded look for him, if he maintains what he has done since early August. He has a good track record and might just need rest and health to be dominate again in 2017. But again, he may be attractive to others allowing the team to shuffle the deck, especially since he is a FA in 2017. Jason Motte and Chad Qualls are paid too much money to pitch the 5th inning. Both players the team has to simply hope are healthy and that after a down year, like many relievers, they will bounce back. As 7th and 8th inning guys in the past, they have the track record. But they need to find it again.

 

The Middle Relief roles are interesting. Two former starters have the stuff to be 6th and 7th inning guys are Jordan Lyles and Chris Rusin. Lyles bombed out as a starter…finally. I kept thinking he would figure it out but…no. But his 3.79 ERA shows real promise for a solid future in the bullpen. In July and August in 24 innings he only gave up 6 runs. The only thing holding Jordan back is…he doesn’t strike anyone out (he and Eddie Butler must be roomies at Spring Training). Then  there is Rusin, who as an occasional starter is…okay. As a long-man he has been good. But he should be pitching later in games. As a reliever he has nearly 8K/9, a 2.54 ERA, a .974 WHIP and a BB/K ration of 4.00. Rusin may be the best person to replace Logan, but his ability to pitch two innings makes his value higher as a middle reliever. I think we can say thank you to the Cubs not only for the DJ trade but for cutting Rusin in September 2013.

 

With the recent outrighting of Christian Bergman, the team is search of a new long-man. Rusin has filled that role but his value is to great to use only once ever 5 days. This is not a role you spend money on or actually recruit. If the Rox were to trade Parra for another bad contract from another team I could see them getting a failed bigger contract starter in return and making him the long-man. But in the realm of what we know today, the man with the inside track (after Butler’s failures) is Harrison Musgrave. Musgrave is a big lefty, with good deception, who probably doesn’t fit as a starter (at best 5th starter stuff). In AAA this year (he dominated in AA and was moved to AAA in May) he threw 113 innings with an ERA of 4.30 and a WHIP of 1.40. He doesn’t strikeout lots of hitters (just 79) but after some early struggles with walks, the back end of the season saw his control improve. On a team with a plethora of starting pitchers of good quality coming, the role of swing man might be the best place for Musgrave if he wants to be on a big league roster.

 

On the farm there are some interesting arms. Miguel Castro was great early in the season for the Rox, but after time off for his shoulder…stunk. Sorry, no way to put it when you get shelled at AAA and Coors Field. Castro still has a ton of talent (and could still end up a starter), but has value as a back end reliever (and with this Rox group of starters that is where the boost is needed). The better Castro has been Simon Castro, a 28-year old career (save a brief stint in 2014 in Colorado) minor leaguer. Since a bad April he has been arguably the best reliever for the Isotopes. He may get a chance to make the roster out of Spring Training (I expect Justin Miller to lose his spot on the 40-man after this year). Scott Oberg, who had a great run in the middle of the season and then needed major surgery in August will start in AAA as part of his recovery but…he has big league experience and has improved each year. Likewise Matt Carasitti, who the team remains high on (again, developmental year) will probably start in AAA. Jerry Vasto, a closer in Modesto and later Hartford is another intriguing arm the team may look to in 2017 (age 24). And I guess I will throw it out there for sentimental sakes…I still hope Tyler Matzek makes it all the way back. Still walking too many guys but hope springs eternal.

 

On the surface that collection of arms looks…promising. If the younger players take the next step, well…this could be a great group, if the vets stay healthy. We know that a lot of the guys mentioned in the farm system are going to pitch at Coors, especially Castro and Oberg who have already been there and if Carasitti can work on his control, he too will be an early and often arm mentioned. There is one other wild card out there. Jairo Diaz had a chance to break camp in 2016 until his elbow blew out. He has had the surgery and is already back throwing. The thing holding him back before was his control (he can hit 100, but Estevez shows that hard can get hit hard if it is over the middle of the plate). Usually control is the last thing to come back for TJ recipients.  Maybe they can work with delivery to take stress off the arm and bring in higher control but if he can reach his potential…he can be a big weapon in 2017, but probably not on Opening Day.

 

So there you have it, the likely pitching group for your Colorado Rockies in 2017. Might we seem more surprises? A trade for another starter (or of Tyler Chatwood). A decision to break the bank open for big-name reliever (Marc Melanson?). Could happen but I suspect 90% of the guys who will be on the roster in April are already with this team. That may be a disappointment right now, but if they all can learn from 2016…could this be the start of our own Atlanta Braves early-1990s period? I think so…but then…I am the eternal optimist with purple-tinted glasses.

1 Comment

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