Last season, the Rockies had what was arguably the worst season in their 20 as a franchise. There were plenty of culprits — a porous defense and Troy Tulowitzki getting hurt yet again were two large factors. But the chief culprit for Colorado’s 98-loss season was the worst starting rotation in franchise history. In response to this, the Rockies have gone out and signed Jeff Francis, Miguel Batista and Chris Volstad. These signings probably will have no material effect on the team’s rotation, but if they do, they won’t be signings that push the Rockies toward contention, but rather mediocrity.
Last season, the Rockies starting rotation posted a FIP- of 116, which was 14 percent than the average National League team, and nine percent worse than the next-worst Rockies season (2002). Since the Rockies came into existence, only 29 teams out of 520 have posted a worse FIP- than they did this past season. To call the team’s performance awful would be an understatement. They had just two pitchers post above-average results in its rotation last season — Francis and Juan Nicasio — and 12 who posted below-average results. Looking forward to 2013, Jorge De La Rosa could likely be added to that mix as well. His return from Tommy John surgery was pockmarked with setbacks, and he can be forgiven for flopping in his abbreviated return, but with a career 98 FIP-, we can reasonably expect him to be average if he comes into spring training in good shape. Jhoulys Chacin could also be something resembling average, perhaps even a tick better. Chacin started the season in horrendous fashion and then missed nearly four months due to injury, but when he returned, his results were tasty. He posted a 2.84 ERA in his final nine starts, and while he only tallied 23 strikeouts against just 17 walks, there’s room for him to regress from that ERA and still be average.
So Francis, Nicasio, De La Rosa and Chacin — that’s not bad, right? Well, not so fast. All four have durability issues. Francis, the veteran of a shoulder surgery, is an old 32, hasn’t thrown a 90-mph pitch in nearly two seasons and has only topped 150 innings once in the past five. Nicasio is coming off of major knee surgery and has only tossed 186.1 innings in the past two seasons combined. And while part of that is owed to the horrific freak injury he suffered in 2011, his high single-season high-water mark is 177.2 innings. Couple that with any complications from his knee injury, and he’s no sure bet to last the whole season either. Ditto De La Rosa, who since 2004 has two seasons with 150 or more innings pitched and seven that fell short of that mark — many of them far short. The story is the same for Chacin as well.
The Rockies do have a number of young pitchers waiting in the wings to fill both the fifth starter’s role and any injury-related vacancies — Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Chatwood, Edwar Cabrera, Christian Friedrich and Daniel Rosenbaum, to name a few. All are currently on the 40-man roster, and with the exception of Rosenbaum — who Marc Hulet and Co. ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the Nationals system before the Rockies plucked him away in the Rule 5 draft — all have started games in the majors. Pomeranz and Friedrich were quite recently the darlings of the Rockies’ farm system. None of them pitched well last season, but given the turmoil surrounding the team’s pitching plans and its general impatience with the starting rotation both before and after the four-man rotation experiment, I’m not sure that their results should be held against them. Yet despite that the team is still trolling for retread pitchers, with its two latest being Batista and Volstad.
Batista will likely compete for a swing role rather than a starting role, though one wonders why he was even signed in the first place. In the past five seasons, he has been worth -2.1 WAR. He has struck out 247 batters and walked 223. He does generate ground balls, but that clearly hasn’t helped him be effective. Even by normal standards, there is little to like about a pitcher who will be 42 this season and has posted a 4.65 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in the past five. Volstad isn’t much better. Incapable of posting an above-average FIP- in three seasons at a pitcher-friendly ballpark, Volstad’s luck took a turn for the worse in Chicago, where his homerific tendencies conspired to deflate any luster that remained for him. Now he will — if he makes the Rockies’ roster — move to a park where it was 13 percent easier to hit home runs than it was in Wrigley Field. Volstad too generates his fair share of grounders, but his line-drive percentage has also continuously gone backwards — from 16.8% in his first full season to 22.7% last season. The team is also in the mix for Carl Pavano, Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb. Pavano, if healthy, could be a nice little get, but he was most recently seen being incapable of returning from a shoulder injury, and will be 37 this season. None of these pitchers are a decent bet at even being solid, and while the Pomeranz-led group may not be either, they stand a better chance, and taking innings away from them in the quest to find the next Josh Fogg — a one-two win innings-muncher — on the street isn’t going to help the team get back to playoff contention.
From the group of Chacin, Nicasio, De La Rosa and Francis, the Rockies can probably expect to get two average or better pitchers. They will have have to supplement them with the second group of pitchers, led by Pomeranz, who should be the favorite to land the fifth-starter’s job to start the season. They could end up with some average pitchers out of this group as well, but these pitchers must be given a legitimate opportunity to succeed or fail. In a sense, last year has to be thrown out, because of the ill-fated rotation experiment. But even if it isn’t, 22 starts of 96.2 innings is too soon to give up on Pomeranz; likewise 16 starts of just 84.2 innings for Friedrich, and on down the list it goes. But by signing retread pitchers like Batista and Volstad, or Pavano, Lowe or Webb, the Rockies continue to hedge their bets, and in doing so show two things — one, they don’t really believe in the futures of the young pitchers they have developed and acquired, and second that the team is not striving for excellence, but merely mediocrity.
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