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COL Rockies Rotation: Depth Chart Discussions

In the coming weeks, we’ll be covering each team’s potential depth charts in an effort to shine a spotlight on the interesting playing time battles that will be waged this spring. Obviously none of these depth charts are set in stone — rather they should function to focus your attention in the right places to find cheap fantasy value.

Projected Rotation:

Jorge de la Rosa
Jhoulys Chacin
Juan Nicasio
Jeff Francis
Drew Pomeranz

Waiting in the Wings:

Christian Friedrich
Tyler Chatwood
Chris Volstad

No matter what the venue is, pitchin’ ain’t easy. The humidor has helped, but pitching well in Coors Field remains to baseball what invading Russia in winter is to infantries: difficult and bordering on impossible. Rockies starting pitchers have managed to keep their collective ERA under 4.50 just twice since 2000 and their home ERA over the same span is a rather inflated 5.02. On paper, the Rockies appear to have a very similar rotation to last year’s less-than-august crew. Their starters combined for 5.1 WAR last year or 0.4 WAR less than Clayton Kershaw had on his own, which would seem to portend more rough sailing for the Rockies in 2013.

While the names may not have changed much, their contribution should. De la Rosa, Chacin, and Nicasio, the team’s top three starters, made a total of 28 starts last year, which was nowhere near enough for the team to be competitive. 28 starts each from the three of them might give the team a chance, but that trio is more synonymous with the phrase “untapped potential” than with actual results. Francis’ return wasn’t exactly a tour de force, but if he gives the team another year of similar production as their fourth or fifth best starter instead of their ace, that will represent a serious step forward.

While the Rockies do have options with respect to the bottom of their rotation, the issues surrounding the rotation aren’t so much positional battles as a race to break free of the gravitational pull of the trainer’s table. Injuries to the rotation last year meant that 14 different pitchers started multiple games for the Rockies, which is seldom a recipe for success.

De la Rosa’s recovery from 2011 Tommy John surgery was slower than expected and was complicated by forearm tightness during his minor league rehab. When he finally did debut on September 20, he was beaten like a rented mule, but that’s really neither here nor there. The far more important piece of information from those three starts was that he was healthy enough to make them. He pitched in an instructional league this fall, and while some winter ball results would have been nice in order to gauge where he is, this is probably one of those times where no news is good news.

As much as I want him to be perpetually a 25-year-old with great potential, de la Rosa is the same age as Francis and now beyond the theoretical peak. He looked like he had put the pieces together in 2011 before his injury, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to recapture that form from day one. If he doesn’t find success this year, it may never happen.

Unlike de la Rosa, Chacin might still be entering the peak phase of his career. Yes, it is somewhat worrisome that he missed 111 days with a shoulder injury, but all indications are that the issue was muscular in nature rather than structural, which is good news. The fact that there were nerve issues as well has something of a chilling effect, but if the structure is sound and the underlying issues was correctly dealt with, then there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be a persistent problem.

While he did make 14 uninspiring starts at the end of last season, some hope remains that Chacin will reemerge as a fantasy option. It was not so very long ago that Chacin was productive enough to be a middle of the road option in mixed leagues, but his declining strikeouts have rendered him far less usable over the last two seasons.

Nicasio’s first major injury, the fractured vertebra he suffered when he took a line drive to the head in 2011, is the stuff nightmares are made of, but the knee strain and subsequent bone chips he fought in 2012 actually cost him more playing time. Like the previous pair, he pitched too few games to say much concretely. His overall line was marred by a .376 BABIP that helps explain the rather large gulf between his ERA (5.28) and his FIP (3.99)

Like Chacin, Nicasio is heading into the prime of his career, though he is a year older than Chacin is. If I were forced to take someone out of this rotation and roster them all year, Nicasio would probably be my choice since I don’t worry about injury recurrence with him and since I think he still has upside left. That said, the fact that he hasn’t yet thrown more than 130 innings total above Double-A is certainly a reason to be nervous about him. I suspect that he’ll make 20 or more starts this year – for only the second time in his professional career – which means he’ll probably throw more innings this season than in the last two combined. How he handles the fatigue of those final 40-odd innings is anyone’s guess. If he does start the year well, he is certainly one I’d be looking to sell high on, even if his peripherals support his production initially.

Of the pitchers who won’t enter camp slated for a rotation slot, Friedrich has the best chance of supplanting Francis or Pomeranz. Repeating a common thread for this team, he missed substantial time due to a rather severe injury – he succumbed to a stress facture in his lower back – but it’s an injury that looks to be mostly behind him. Friedrich doesn’t reach back particularly far or tilt much with his torso, which is good, since it means this injury won’t necessitate much of a change in his delivery. Were I running the show for the Rockies, I’d stick Friedrich in the rotation at Francis’ expense to see whether he can be counted on for the future, but unless he has a blisteringly hot spring, I can’t see it happening.

Any discussion of the Rockies’ rotation would be incomplete without mentioning that they used a four-man rotation for part of last season. I don’t weight managerial oddities very heavily when selecting players – every manager has a few quirks, it’s just a question of whether or not they’ve become public – and this is no exception. The Rockies went into last season with substantial depth in their rotation and it still wasn’t enough to cover for their issues effectively and so they made the change. I don’t see that same set of circumstances arising again this year, and even if it does, I think they’ve learned that a four-man plan isn’t a particularly good one.