Since starting the season with a 12-12 record, the Rockies have lost 15 of their past 19 games. During this free-fall, the team has experienced a five, four and a six-game losing streak. Now, after 43 games, the team’s 16-27 record is tied for the third-worst in the franchise’s history. Needless to say, it’s been a bad stretch of baseball. And sadly, it was one that was all too predictable.
By objective measures, the Rockies don’t have one above-average unit. Its wRC+ thus far is tied for 19th, with the Nationals and Diamondbacks, and ranks 26th in May. The team’s UZR ranks 28th, and its DRS is last in the game by a wide margin. But while the team has stumbled in those two areas, you can see where rebounds are possible. Where it’s harder to see where the improvement will come however, is with the team’s pitching. As a staff, the rank 27th in FIP, and the starting rotation ranks 29th. The team’s struggles there have been magnified by the sub-optimal decisions from manager Jim Tracy and the front office.
Tracy’s handling of the pitching staff has been downright mystifying. Only three other teams have inserted more relief pitchers into games this season than Tracy. So far he’s managed to squeeze 140 reliever outings into the first 43 games (the league average is a tick over 127). What’s even more surprising is that he’s managed to get 20 different pitchers into at least one game. During their brief history, the Rockies have used fewer than 24 pitchers per season on average — and they’ve used 20 or fewer per year in four seasons. Tracy hit that mark before Memorial Day.
And while Jeremy Guthrie’s bike accident was a freak thing, there have been other problems that were avoidable. The team didn’t stay on top of Jhoulys Chacin’s bicep and shoulder soreness, and as a result, he was shut down for fear of needing rotator-cuff surgery.
The team has also made several other odd decisions, most notably with Tyler Chatwood. The 22-year-old was told that he’d be a starter, but then he made the Opening Day roster as a reliever. And then he was shipped to Triple-A two weeks into April and converted back to a starter.
More than that though is the pervasive feeling that the manager isn’t putting his players in the best position to succeed — and then he gets frustrated when they don’t. A perfect example of this is Rex Brothers, who has been used in more high-leverage situations than any Rockies’ reliever outside of closer Rafael Betancourt. In fact, of the 192 relievers who have thrown at least 10 innings this season, only 35 have been used in higher leverage situations than has Brothers. The second-year pitcher has not responded remarkably well, and his eight meltdowns are leading the league. He had seven when the Rockies played the Diamondbacks in an afternoon tilt on May 17. You might remember it as the bee game.
Entering the game, Brothers had a 5.79 ERA in May — and had struck out just one more batter than he walked. Yet with the Rockies clinging to a 4-3 lead entering the eighth inning, Tracy tapped Brothers to pitch. Brothers promptly gave up four runs, and the Rockies lost the game. With Brothers struggling, why place him in such a high-leverage situation? A few days after his disastrous outing, Brothers was demoted and all but admitted his confidence was shot. In a word, he was just trying to “escape” each appearance. Yet rather than exhibit the patience that Tracy showed with Carlos Gonzalez in 2009 — patience that helped CarGo find his groove and become the player he was touted to be — Tracy made Brothers (and Drew Pomeranz before him) somebody else’s problem. Tracy continues to preach patience, but has exhibited precious little himself.
There are other examples this year, but let’s take a step back. Why has Tracy been put in a situation where he feels it necessary to run through so many pitchers? Why was the Jamie Moyer experiment green lit in the first place? The answer is the front office.
Since the start of last season, Dan O’Dowd and Co. have wheeled and dealed with veracity, trading or selling 16 players and getting 15 in return. But the returns have been modest, to put it kindly. The club has saved, by my rough calculations, approximately $14.5 million in the deals, but the players the team received in return had contributed very little when play began yesterday:
|Rockies receive:||Other team receives:|
|Mark Ellis||1.4||Felipe Paulino||3.6|
|Drew Pomeranz||0.8||Jason Hammel||1.4|
|Tyler Colvin||0.3||Ubaldo Jimenez||0.6|
|Josh Outman||0.2||Huston Street||0.5|
|Marco Scutaro||0.2||Matt Lindstrom||0.4|
|Guillermo Moscoso||0.1||Seth Smith||0.4|
|Tyler Chatwood||0.1||Chris Iannetta||0.3|
|Zach Putnam||0||Franklin Morales||0.2|
|Alex White||-0.2||Clayton Mortensen||0.2|
|Jeremy Guthrie||-0.3||Ian Stewart||0.1|
|Joe Gardner||N/A||Ty Wigginton||0.0|
|DJ LeMahieu||N/A||Bruce Billings||-0.1|
|Matt Mcbride||N/A||Chris Malone||N/A|
|Kevin Slowey||N/A||Greg Reynolds||N/A|
|Chad Tracy||N/A||Kevin Slowey||N/A|
That’s five solid wins out the door. What’s worse, the Rockies have won precious few of these trades. The Ellis acquisition was a feather in their cap, as all it cost them was Billings. And so far, the Colvin trade has worked out nicely. That’s about it.
The Ubaldo Jimenez trade may eventually work in the team’s favor, but at this point — from a WAR perspective — the trade is a wash. Pomeranz is supposed to be the ace of the future, but right now he is in Triple-A, and he was beaten like a dusty rug yesterday. Two of the pitchers who were dealt away — Hammel and Paulino, neither of whom is yet 30 years old or overly expensive — would easily be the Rockies’ best pitcher right now. So would Kevin Millwood, who was not resigned by the team in the offseason even after pitching well for them down the stretch in 2011.
It’s still too early to fully evaluate many of these trades, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Iannetta has already been more valuable than has Chatwood, and the gap should continue to widen when he returns from his broken wrist. And the team’s biggest coup — Ellis — is now playing in southern California. While saving money to use in other areas is perfectly sound reasoning, it’s helpful if the new players turn out to be worth the money. Michael Cuddyer has been a fine addition, but Scutaro and Ramon Hernandez have been anything but.
Many of the pitchers acquired in these trades are low-cost pitchers, and part of the reason the team has been so aggressive in targeting such pitchers is the organization’s failure to develop its own. Christian Friedrich built up excitement with his first two starts, but he belly flopped spectacularly in his third against a weak-hitting Mariners squad. And outside of Friedrich, the only other starting pitchers the team has drafted and graduated in the past decade have been Greg Reynolds and Jeff Francis. Three starting pitchers in a decade. The team has experienced great success with its Latin American program, but for a team that is supposedly built around drafting and player development, its draft record needs to improve.
Things have been bad, but much of it was foreseeable before the season. The team pinned its hopes to a young pitching staff, and have been flailing about since the season started, trying multiple pitchers to quickly find a fit, and not doing so. The situation may not get any better in the near future, either. If all goes well, the end of the season will feature a rotation of Chacin, Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, Jorge De La Rosa and one of White or Friedrich. That’s not a rotation that inspires much confidence. Prior to the season, the only one of those six whom ZiPS pegged for a FIP under 4.00 was Chacin — and at 3.98, he barely made it.
Plenty of Rockies’ players have underperformed this season, and much of the team’s slow start is due to that. But there are significant flaws in both the design and day-to-day implementation of this team. But that’s not deterring the team. Earlier this week, owner Dick Monfort gave both O’Dowd and Tracy his unequivocal support. The poor play however, is not a mirage. Only six teams have a worse run differential than the Rockies, and only seven have a lower team WAR.
It has been said that this Rockies season was supposed to be a bridge to next season, and perhaps 2013 will bring better results. Nolan Arenado should be up by then, and perhaps Pomeranz will be ready to take the ball on Opening Day. But those two players on their own are not going to turn this team into a contender. The Rockies are still worth the price of admission because Coors Field is spectacular, because Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are in-their-prime superstars, and because Todd Helton deserves kudos for grinding out the end of what is a borderline hall-of-fame career (even with his struggles this year, he’s one of the team’s four most valuable position players). But without significant changes to the Rockies’ pitching staff, it appears that CarGo’s and Tulo’s primes will be wasted in much the same way that Helton’s was.