Young Guns Starting to Make Rockies A Factor
The Rockies are in what for them is an unusual but far from uncomfortable position. They open spring training with their starting pitching – which will be the youngest rotation in Major League Baseball – as a strength, Coors Field notwithstanding.
And they have ample options to choose from in the spring thanks to the maturation of prospects into big-leaguers in the course of a 2016 season where the rookies in the rotation came to the rescue.
A year ago the Rockies opened spring training feeling confident in their rotation, figuring that one of a hand full of rookies on the spring roster could fill the lone rotation vacancy. Then reality hit.
First Chad Bettis was sidelined by a recurrence of testicular cancer that limited him to nine starts, all in the final two months of the season, and that opened up a spot in the rotation that led to rookie Antonio Senzatela starting Game 4 of the 2017 season in Milwaukee and rookie Kyle Freeland getting the call in the home opener, the next day, against the Dodgers.
And by June, those two had been joined in the rotation by fellow rookies German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman, giving the Rockies a quartet of rookie starting pitchers that arguably were more impressive than any other group of rookies in a rotation since the advent of expansion in 1961.
For all the moaning and groaning in the baseball world about the perils of Coors Field, the four rookies combined to make 93 starts, 11th most for rookies on a staff in the expansion era, won a combined 38 games, most of any contingent of rookies since expansion began, and played a key role in helping the Rockies become only the 10th team in the expansion era among the 133 to have a rookie make at least 50 starts and advance to the post-season.
It is a far cry from that final day in Arizona during the spring of 1996 when the late Don Baylor told Mark Thompson before his start against the Brewers in Chandler, “give me three good innings and I’ll get you out of there and you will be the fifth starter.”
It also is why one of the bigger challenges the Rockies management team will face this spring is setting up the season-opening rotation.
Jon Gray, who started Opening Day a year ago but after three starts had to admit he could not pitch through a stress fracture of his left foot suffered when he was hit by a batted ball in spring training, and went on the disabled list for 77 days, is considered the ace.
After that, however, it gets interesting. There is Bettis, who did return in mid-August to assume a role in the rotation, and Tyler Anderson, who was on the disabled list for 95 out of 99 days from June 4 through Sept. 10 with a left knee inflammation. And then there are the four rookies from a year ago, Freeland, Senzatela, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman.
Freeland and Marquez won 11 games each, tied for the most by an MLB pitcher in 2017, and Senzatela’s 10 wins tied him for the third most.
To that mix add Hoffman, who spent the bulk of the first two months at Triple-A before getting called up when Tyler Anderson went on the disabled list June 4, and the Rockies rookie starting pitchers combined for 38 wins. It was the third highest victory total for rookie starting pitchers on a staff in the expansion area.
The win totals of the four rank among the top 13 in Rockies history for a rookie starting pitcher. That group also includes the 2016 seasons of Gray and Anderson, underscoring the impact of young arms in a Rockies rotation in which Bettis, who turns 29 on April 26, is the elder statesman.
With the nature of the game, all seven most assuredly will be called on at some point this year. The Rockies use of eight starting pitchers a year ago – the current seven plus Tyler Chatwood who signed as a free agent with the Cubs – represents the fewest starting pitchers the Rockies have used in any of their 25 seasons of competition.
And they represent a reason for optimism for the Rockies in 2018.