2018 Rockies Preview: Colorado’s success hinges on the starting rotation

Sep 13, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Colorado Rockies pitcher German Marquez throws in the third inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies turned heads last season with their impressive 87-75 record, returning to the postseason for the first time in eight years while establishing themselves as a perennial playoff threat for the foreseeable future.

After years filled with shortcomings and underachievement, general manager Jeff Bridich figured out a way to tap into the minds and wallets of the Monfort family, the Rockies ownership group, which until recently have often been branded as cheap and disinterested in winning. The Rockies currently claim the 14th-highest payroll with $123.64 million dedicated to the 25-man roster, which is a significant increase from 2017 ($105.03 million) and 2016 ($88,354,041).

If the Rockies want to build on their impressive 2017 season, the starting pitching will need to hold strong

The Rockies’ main point of emphasis this offseason was the bullpen. Colorado has more than $100 million invested in its bullpen, which is the most expensive in baseball history. While the bullpen is undoubtedly one of Colorado’s greatest strengths entering the year, it won’t be useful if the Rockies are down and out in ballgames in the middle innings.

If the Rockies want to succeed in 2018, their starting pitching will need to evolve from young and inexperienced to young and dangerous. They certainly have the potential to do so.

The Rockies have seven options to fill out their five-man rotation for the coming season: Jon Gray, German Marquez, Chad Bettis, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, Antonio Senzatela, and Tyler Anderson.

The Rockies hold a stockpile of talent at starting pitchers, with seven legitimate starters competing for five spots, but what the team lacks is a true “ace.” Each starter is good, but not one is great — yet. Gray is the closest arm Colorado has to becoming that guy and taking this next step will be the focus for Gray in 2018.

Gray, the anchor of the Rockies’ starting rotation, will look to build on and learn from his 2017 season. After finishing the year 10-4 in 20 starts, Gray got his first taste of the postseason. The right-hander when he was chased by Arizona in the Rockies Wild Card game after only 1.1 innings, souring an otherwise solid year once he returned from injury.

Mixing pitches and winning battles in his second and third time through the order will be key. Gray held a 2.44 ERA in innings one through three in 2017, however that number ballooned to 5.48 for innings four through six. Building chemistry with his new catcher Chris Iannetta will also be key. Gray posted a 2.69 ERA with Jonathan Lucroy catching him in 2017. Lucroy, however, became a free-agent at the end of the year and was not re-signed by Colorado.

Marquez also has the potential to develop into the ace of Colorado’s staff in 2018. Marquez had a dazzling 2017 season in which he led the club in strikeouts (147), innings pitched (162), starts (29), ERA (4.39), and was tied for the most wins (11).

At 22 years old Marquez, like the rest of Colorado’s starters, still has plenty of room to grow. Last season he proved to be a reliable arm for the Rockies and was the most consistent starting pitcher throughout the entirety of the season. Although he tends to fly under the radar, Marquez has the potential to blossom into a legitimate No. 1 starter. With a sharp fastball and wicked curveball, Marquez has two pitches that are his bread and butter, but he is working on adding a changeup and slider to his repertoire, according to The Denver Post, which if successful, could solidify him as the ace for the Rockies moving forward.

Kyle Freeland dazzled at times in 2017, pitching the longest Rockies no-hit bid Coors Field has ever seen in his final start before the All-Star break, but the local Thomas Jefferson High School product also showed his age and inexperience in 2017. Freeland’s numbers took a sharp dive towards the end of the season. The Rockies recognized the workload wearing on Freeland and began to utilize Freeland more as a reliever instead of burning out the young arm.

Another year of experience and conditioning will do Freeland good. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound left-hander has loads of potential but simply needs more experience. Freeland’s 3.3 WAR was the best on the team for pitchers in 2017, but walks were a minor problem and certainly will be something to watch in 2017.

Bettis beat cancer, returned to the field and threw seven shut-out innings at Coors Field, exiting to a standing ovation and capturing the story of the year on Aug. 14. 2017 was about conquering a tougher opponent than baseball; 2018 will be about building upon that experience.

Bettis went at least 5.0 innings in seven of his nine starts, but the Rockies were just 4-5 in games he started last year. After leading the team in wins and innings pitched in 2016, Bettis has plenty to offer. Turning the page on off-field battles and focusing on on-field battles this year certainly will clear the head for Bettis, who is expected to be in the top half of the rotation for Colorado in 2018.

Jeff Hoffman, much like teammate Kyle Freeland, came on very strong to start 2017. Hoffman started 4-0, powering the Rockies into mid-July before beginning the hit the young pitcher wall. Hoffman was eventually assigned to a reliever’s role with the return of Bettis. Hoffman threw nine innings as a reliever in his up and down 2017. He will certainly factor into the rotation at some point in 2018, but earning a spot among the starting five right out of the gate will depend on how well he performs in Spring Training.

Senzatela might be the most interesting pitcher of the bunch. He made the team out of Spring Training last season and burst onto the baseball scene with his incredible start. Senzatela posted a record of 4-1 with an ERA of 2.81 in the month of April, which led to his earning National League Rookie of the Month honors. But as the season progressed, Senzatela’s youth showed as his ERA increased to 4.11 in May and 8.10 in June. From there the Rockies opted to move him to the bullpen, where he was serviceable. Overall, Senzatala managed to win 10 games in 2017, but nine of those came by June 19. He brings value to the club both as a starter and relief pitcher. What he really needs to develop is stamina. Injuries shortened his 2016 in Double-A, and his “rookie wall” became very evident by midseason. It’s unknown how the Rockies intend to utilize him in the coming season, but based on his 2017 tour he should have a spot with the club in some capacity.

Anderson is the biggest wild card of the bunch. At 28 years old, his journey to the big leagues has been anything but smooth. After getting called up during the 2016 season, Anderson was penciled in as a starter for the Rockies in 2017; however, he had a horrendous April in which he posted a record of 1-3 with an ERA of 7.71 and eventually would undergo arthroscopic knee surgery which sidelined him for a large portion of the season. Anderson did make a strong return for the Rockies in the thick of their postseason hunt. In September, he posted a record of 3-1 to pair with an impressive ERA of 1.19. Consistency in health and performance have been the most significant barriers that have prevented Anderson from hitting his full stride.

Anderson could be utilized as both a starter or relief pitcher, but with all the youth the Rockies have in their rotation (five of the seven players listed in this article are under the age of 27), adding an older arm to the mix might not be a bad idea despite the fact that he’s yet to pitch a full season in the big leagues.

Expectations are sky high for the Rockies this season. The club bolstered the bullpen and the offense is expected to be as good as ever. The Rockies are putting huge faith in their young staff to rise to the occasion and help push them back to the postseason.

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