Rockies fans, we have a competitive Spring Training competition! No, this is not about who can jack the most dingers in the Cactus League. The Colorado Rockies have a pitching competition this spring, and it is actually between real pitchers.
Heading into Spring Training 2017, the Rockies have four starting pitchers solidified in their rotation. Questions regarding the fifth spot remain in the minds of manager Bud Black, the Front Office, and most importantly, the fans. In years past, the Rockies rotation was typically enough to cause altitude sickness. Unlike past seasons though, this season’s rotation should be enough to give us hope (or at least a can of oxygen and some Advil). Alongside the likes of Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Chad Bettis, and Tyler Chatwood, the Rockies boast several young, talented arms. This is an in depth look at the battle for the fifth rotation spot.
The Young Arms
I have yet to decide what I think of Jeff Hoffman’s hair or his glasses, but with a mid-nineties fastball, the guy can pitch. As one of the key returns on the Troy Tulowitzki trade, he better be able to. Rockies fans got a glimpse at his abilities last season, when he went 0-4 in eight games.
Although Hoffman’s 2016 ERA was poor and he didn’t earn a win, those stats aren’t always a fair indicator of young pitching talent. In those eight major league games, Hoffman gave up 37 hits and 17 walks while striking out 22 batters. The number of walks he gave up is certainly less than desirable, but that strikeout rate shows promise. In 118.2 innings of minor league ball last year, Hoffman struck out 124 batters while only walking 44.
Those minor league stats may make some of you scream “Coors Field Effect!” while giving your screen a “Gotchya!” grin. Gotchya grins aside, I don’t think that altitude is the issue here. In 14 innings at Coors Field, Hoffman surrendered nine hits and walked six batters. He also had nine strikeouts. In 16.4 road innings, Hoffman gave up 25 hits, 11 walks, and struck out 13. That’s a glaring difference isn’t it! No, it really isn’t. In fact, based on only those stats, one might think Hoffman should stick to pitching at Coors Field. Hoffman’s problem in 2016 is a problem that almost all players (except apparently Trevor Story, David Dahl, and Gary Sanchez) face; youth and inexperience. At 24 years old, Hoffman is young and still has growth ahead of him. 2016 was his chance to get his feet wet. That he did. Look for him to come into his own this Spring Training, and quite possibly blossom into an above average starter. If he impresses pitching coach Steve Foster and skipper Bud Black, he will probably round out the rest of the rotation.
Due to the expectations we have of pitchers, it can be hard for fans (especially pessimistic Rockies fans) to be impressed by a young pitcher’s stuff. That said, Marquez seemed to catch many eyes in 2016. Like Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez threw relatively well for a young pitcher just getting a chance to face batters in the majors.
Unlike Hoffman though, most Rockies fans had probably never heard of Marquez before his first start. He’s one of the pieces the Rockies picked up in the Corey Dickerson trade, which sent Dickerson and a minor league third baseman to the Rays in exchange for reliever Jake McGee and the 22 year-old Marquez. With McGee and Dickerson headlining the trade, Marquez was not valued highly. Now, over a year later, he is showing potential.
Marquez’s fastball sits between 92 and 96 MPH. Put bluntly, he throws smoke. Further, Marquez’s numbers look well at Coors Field, where he struck out ten and walked two in three games. In as many road games, Marquez struck out half as many batters and surrendered four walks. Although he pitched fewer innings on the road, those splits should still give Rockies fans hope that Marquez’s hard fastball is enough to overcome the high altitude of Denver.
Marquez may not be the next Kershaw, but he could certainly develop into an excellent mid-rotation starter for the Rockies. Most importantly, German Marquez has brought a competitive mindset to Spring Training. Some may have counted him out already, but that will just give Marquez the element of surprise. So is the fifth starter spot Hoffman’s to lose, or is Marquez’s to take? The rest of Spring Training should give us an answer, and a thrilling competition along the way.
The Dark Horse
Wait! There’s more! For the first time that I can remember, the Rockies enter Spring Training with legitimate pitching depth. Chris Rusin lies amidst that depth as arguably the most versatile pitcher the Rockies possess. He began last season in the starting rotation but transferred to the bullpen after several bad outings. Despite the bad games as a starter, I liked most of what I saw from Rusin out of the pen last year.
Many thought (and still think) he would undoubtedly be kept in the bullpen this season, acting as an arm that could go in for long outings. While that option is certainly still on the table, former pitcher turned skipper Bud Black indicated that the Rockies are giving Rusin a shot at a spot in the rotation.
It may seem odd that the Rockies are giving Rusin this second (or third…) chance, but why wouldn’t they? At 30, Rusin has quite a bit more Major League experience than Marquez and Hoffman. Further, Rusin seemed to really get his feet under him in 2016 when he posted an ERA of 3.74 and a solid WAR of 2.1.
Granted, that could be enough of a reason to keep Rusin in the bullpen this year. That said, having him translate last year’s numbers to a starting role would be a fantastic scenario for the Rockies. As a starter, Rusin could allow the Rockies to keep Hoffman and Marquez in the minors this year, continuing their development.
Sure, making Rusin the fifth starter would negatively affect the team’s bullpen depth. But with five solid starting pitchers, the Rockies would need less bullpen help than they have needed recently. If Chris Rusin shows the capability to hold down the final spot in the rotation, the Rockies shouldn’t hesitate to make him their fifth starting pitcher.
Some fans have suggested that the Rockies should switch to a six-man pitching rotation in order to combat injuries sustained at the high altitude of Coors Field. I think these suggestions have good intentions, but I’m not sure this extra step is needed. Yes, higher altitude can lead to increased fatigue and soreness in athletes. It is also true that fatigue and soreness are two of a pitcher’s worst enemies.
But many fans act as though the Rockies play in the Himalayas; they do not. Injuries are a problem for all organizations. They are battled by proper training and depth, both of which the Rockies seem to have in 2017. At this point, injuries do not pose a big enough problem for the Rockies to justify switching to a six-man rotation. I mean, come on! Don’t you want to see Jon Gray as often as possible? Me too.
So what could justify such a switch? If Hoffman and Marquez both prove that they can be (undoubtedly) solid starters this year, the argument for a six-man rotation could be made. As a Rockies fan, I genuinely hope that all three pitchers on this list go far beyond their expectations this spring. Fanatic feelings aside, it’s doubtful that all three will. Despite that, fans should be ecstatic. The Rockies have a plethora of legitimate options on the mound this year. We have waited for years for the Rockies to field a respectable pitching staff, and I think 2017 is the year the wait ends.
Most articles covering this competition will also cover young prospects Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela. While I do not doubt the talent of these two young pitchers, I decided to try to give Rockies fans an in depth look at the three most likely candidates for the final spot in the rotation. That said, do not overlook these two names. Baseball is a game in which anything can happen; if you doubt that, just remember that Randy Johnson once pitched a bird to death and the Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series Champions.