Rockies Playing Time Battles: Pitchers

We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.

The always-stingy Colorado Rockies ranked 21st in the majors in salary by the end of the season, cracking the $100-million for the first time in franchise history. Their biggest expenditure, though, may have been the outlay for physical therapists specializing in neck injuries, as their pitching staff likely suffered from a great deal of whiplash in 2015.

The Rockies employed the second-worst pitching in baseball by wins above replacement, with the staff as a whole owning a 5.04 ERA, 4.56 FIP, and 4.33 xFIP. And sure, that xFIP-ERA gap is enormous thanks to a 13.2-percent home run per-fly ball rate, but that’s almost always going to be the case for a team that plays half its games at Coors Field – as a team, they haven’t outperformed their FIP or xFIP since 2007, the lone time they’ve done so in franchise history.

To combat this, the Rockies have eschewed strikeouts in favor of ground-ball pitchers, owning the fourth-highest ground-ball rate and the No. 28 strikeout rate a season ago. Whether or not that’s a sound strategy – limiting balls in play with high-whiff arms might better counter the Coors effect – is almost beside the point, because the Rockies haven’t made significant changes to the rotation for 2016.

Little boxes, on the hillside

Starting pitchers, lined up in a row, their faces blurred, their shape uniform, striking out few, walking slightly fewer, burning up worms, and too-occasionally watching balls fly hundreds and hundreds of feet. Crank their neck, return to the mound, approach again. That’s the mold the Rockies rotation is made from, and while de facto ace Jorge de la Rosa strikes out more batters than the others, he sets the tone with a 52-percent ground-ball rate and a 14.8-percent home run per-fly ball rate. He was shut down late due to an Achilles issue and isn’t a good bet for even 175 innings, but when he’s healthy, he’s about as reliable an arm you’ll draft from Colorado. Just pick when you start him carefully, if you’re an NL-only owner who makes the leap.

He’s followed by a trio of holdovers, each with some limited deep-league or road-streaming value but none of whom will go ahead of de la Rosa, who ranks right around the 100-mark among starters, on draft day.

Jonathan Gray is the most intriguing of the three, a 24-year-old who entered last season as the organization’s top prospect. He’s the only one in the group with a chance of reaching one strikeout per-inning, and he’s going to have to do that to make up for middling command. His 94-95 MPH fastball plays up with nearly 10 MPH separation from his changeup, and his slider was his best pitch last year in his 40.2-inning debut. There was a 3.63 FIP underlying his 5.53 ERA, as he was bled for a .384 BABIP despite doing well in terms of inducing weaker contact, though he’ll want to follow suit in forcing more ground-balls to survive Coors.

Chad Bettis follows, having turned in the best season of the group last year, his third taste of the majors. He posted a 4.23 ERA and 3.85 FIP, thanks in part to nearly half of his balls in play staying on the ground. It’s strange that his striekout rate was significantly higher after settling back into the rotation, especially since his fastball velocity was down, but he took nearly three miles off his changeup and threw it twice as often, an important tweak. He’s probably only an average strikeout pitcher, and that’s a tough life in Colorado, but he’s on the NL-only radar.

Even further off the fantasy radar is Jordan Lyles, who’s competing for a spot in the rotation and would seem to have an edge. He’s anything but durable, though, so even locking down a spot may not mean a great deal. Considering he doesn’t strike many batters out – roughly six per-nine – and doesn’t have strong command, even a 50-percent ground-ball rate probably isn’t enough to keep his ratios to a level where he’s ownable.

Pleading for a fif

Assuming Lyles locks up a spot, the No. 5 starter role could go any number of ways, some more interesting than others. Maybe Tyler Chatwood is finally ready for a return after throwing just 34.1 innings over the last two seasons, but prior to injury trouble he wasn’t even a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk guy, or even close to it. If the Rockies don’t want him as a long-man/swingman/third lefty, maybe Chris Rusin and his lack of options get him a shot. He doesn’t register nearly enough strikeouts to matter if he does, and his rotation spot would be permanently tenuous. Tyler Matzek returning to take the job would be a nice story and (hopefully) an important example, but expecting a sub-5.00 ERA would be asking a lot given his struggles in 2015.

So if not those names, are there any other arms fantasy owners should have an eye on? Eddie Butler, nearly 25 now, is believed to be a long-shot and doesn’t have anywhere near the swing-and-miss stuff to be ownable. David Hale showed the type of profile the Rockies seem to like in 78.1 innings last year – few walks, few fly balls – but still came out with a 6.09 ERA, is already 28, and is dealing with a hamstring injury early in camp. Thirty-year-old Yohan Flande was a non-disastrous stop-gap a season ago and is heavy on the grounders, too, but any moderate success could be temporary with how few bats he misses and how hard the balls he allows in the air are hit.

But maybe, maybe there’s help on the way later down the line, after all of these uninspiring names. Jeff Hoffman was a big piece of the haul for Troy Tulowitzki, was great in three short minor-league stops (as high as Double-A) last year, and could be ready for a mid-season call-up if the Rockies want to play it loose with service time. Tyler Anderson missed all of last season and still hasn’t pitched above Double-A at age 26 but was once a regarded enough prospect with a chance to strike out 20 percent of batters. Antonio Senzatela was added to the 40-man roster in the offseason but just turned 21 and hasn’t pitched above High-A.

What a mess.

Maybe the bullpen can hold the 75 leads they’ll have?

So, there’s good news. The Rockies acquired Jake McGee to shore up the bullpen, and while Corey Dickerson is a hefty price to pay, the left-handed McGee has turned in consecutive strong seasons out of the pen and done so in three of the last four years. So long as he’s healthy, he’s doing to strike out a lot of batters, the issue being that the Rockies might not get him many save opportunities. He’s probably outside of the top-20 closers for that reason.

A trio of familiar righties will try to bridge the gap to McGee and compete for scraps if he goes down. Jason Motte was formerly among the most reliable relievers around before Tommy John surgery derailed him, and he only returned to being just OK in 2015. A 47.1-percent fly-ball rate and 6.4-percent swinging-strike rate are downright terrifying in this environment, so pray he rebounds in those areas. If he does, he could be solid again, especially if his velocity returning to 95 MPH was leigitmate. Chad Qualls and what feels like 37 seasons of relief experience follow, and he’s definitely got the batted-ball profile to survive in Denver, though he’s always been homer-prone. Justin Miller got bumped down the depth chart with those additions, and that’s disappointing given the strikeout potential. He’s the sleeper here, but he’s also a 28-year-old fly-ball pitcher with only 45.2 innings of major-league experience.

Boone Logan is the bullpen’s second lefty, perhaps followed by Rusin if he doesn’t lock down a starting spot, and while there’s strikeout potential there, there are too many names in his way to factor in early. Jairo Diaz, a 25-year-old righty with a strong strikeout and ground-ball mix who impressed in 19 innings last year, should lock down the final spot in the bullpen, but he wasn’t particularly good in a larger Triple-A sample. Adam Ottavino, a personal favorite and a great Instagram follow, could figure back into the closer picture late in the season but may have to wait to compete for that job until 2017.

There are four minor-league names worth knowing, too. Miguel Castro, another piece of the Tulowitzki deal, has late-inning stuff and looked decent on Colorado’s farm after being acquired. He was probably thrust into an MLB role too early with Toronto and subsequently got rocked in 5.1 innings with Colorado. He’s still only 21 and already has major-league experience, though, making him a pretty good closer prospect, if such a thing exists. Carlos Estevez is, too, as a flamethrower who’s only thrown 26 innings above High-A. Scott Oberg will probably get an earlier look despite struggling some last year, and his minor-league track record suggests he has more strikeout potential than maybe he got to show (he throws 95 MPH). Christian Bergman could see time as well, but he’d just be sponging up innings to hold things down.

Any closer is worth owning, and you can pretty quickly talk yourself into a fair number of these names. Maybe the Rockies should just employ 13 relievers?

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Ryan Brock

I think Motte in Coors is going to be super interesting to watch. Does a FB/IFFB dependent guy work there if he can induce weak enough contact? It certainly negates a little bit of the BABIP elevation that you see in Coors if his OF’s can play well behind him.

I mean, either that, or he gives up literally one million home runs.