Rockies Take a Big Gamble on Their Rotation of the Future

If back in June you asked what pitchers would likely be moved at this year’s trade deadline, I’m not sure you’d find many, if any, mentions of the name Ubaldo Jimenez. By all accounts, Jimenez’s contract is extremely team-friendly and he’s singed through the next two seasons. He’ll make $4.2M inn 2012 with a $5.75M club option for 2013 (his 2014 option may be voided now that he has been traded). Essentially, if he falls off the face of the earth production wise, it would only cost his team $1M to buyout the 2013 option. Given that contract, why would the Rockies feel the need to deal him? It’s not as if teams seemingly came out of now where offering up their top prospects. The Rockies seemed to want to trade Ubaldo.


Maybe it’s the loss of velocity and the fear that it may never return. Maybe they’re concerned that his unusual windup will eventually lead to injury. Whatever the case may be, they didn’t see Jimenez as a part of their future plans. Those plans, however, seem to be filled with more risk now than they did a day ago.

The Rockies were my preseason pick to win the National League West. They had three potential studs in the rotation (Jimenez, Chacin and de la Rosa) and the makings of a dangerous lineup (they’ve put up the fifth most runs in the NL). Things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Jimenez wasn’t sharp from the get-go, de la Rosa’s season ended with arm surgery and one of the key pieces to the offense, Carlos Gonzalez, struggled out of the gates. It recently became clear that there would be no Rocktober in 2011.

The Rockies are pretty much looking at returning most of their current roster next season. If everything were to come together for their rotation next season, they could certainly compete in the NL West, but there might be just as equal, if nor more, risk in having most of the staff not live up to expectations. 

Jhoulys Chacin has been a success story this season, but the control problems that plagued him in the minor leagues have returned, as he has walked nearly five batters per nine innings pitched since June 1st. Home runs have been a season-long issue as well, as he has surrendered over one homer per nine innings on the year. If those issues remain in tow in 2012 and he doesn’t see as much of a benefit in BABIP as he has to this point in 2010 (.233 BABIP), then he could easily be starting at an ERA north of four. 

Jorge de la Rosa was in the midst of a breakout year before he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. Can he come back and pitch with the same effectiveness? It might be a tough task. Before this season, de la Rosa had only once posted a BB/9 under four and that was back in 2007 when he struck out only about six batters per nine in 130 innings. Control and command are many times the last thing to return for a pitcher recovering from such a major arm injury. It’s unlikely that De La Rosa will be ready to return to the Rockies rotation until after the start of the 2012 season.

Only once in his career has de la Rosa thrown over 130 big-league innings (185 in 2009).

One starting pitcher that might actually take a step forward in 2012 is Juan Nicasio. In 63.2 big-league innings, Nicasio has posted a 3.46 xFIP, but his 4.24 ERA highlights the fact that, while he has looked rather brilliant on some nights, he has been inconsistent with hitting his spots a bit too often. Nicasio has great control — he hadn’t posted a BB/9 above two in the minor leagues since 2008 — but he needs to refine that control in order to limit the times he leaves pitches out over the heart of the plate. Call it Ricky Nolasco disease, if you will. Nicaso possesses a blazing fastball and an above average slider. If he can improve on his changeup, he could see a rise in his strikeout rate, which could easily vault him into number two starter status.

The fourth spot in the rotation would be Jason Hammel, who just hasn’t been able to take his game to the next level. In fact, he’s regressed horribly this season, posting a 4.57 xFIP and 1.4 K/BB rate. He’s on the books for $4.75M next season. 

At least the Rockies will have the option to part ways with the oft injured and vastly underwhelming Aaron Cook. Cook is on the verge of finishing back-to-back seasons with an ERA over five. This season, he has actually walked more batters than he has struck out. It’s safe to say that the Rockies will not be exercising their end of his $11M mutual option.

As for other options from within the organization, if we don’t include the package of prospects in the Jimenez deal, the cupboard is virtually empty.  The organization’s top pitching prospect heading into the season, Tyler Matzek, has almost completely combusted at the lower minor league levels. He posted a 37/46 K/BB rate in 33 innings at high-A before being demoted to single-A Ashville, where he has struck out 24 and walked 23 in only 18 innings. At this point it’s clear that he has nasty stuff, but it’s also clear that he has no idea what to do with it.

You can check out my scouting report on Matzek at Project Prospect.

Another former Rockies first round pick, Christian Friedrich, continues to battle nagging elbow injuries and can’t seem to regain the strikeout ability that made him a top 100 prospect for two years running in 2009 and 2010. He currently has a 4.48 FIP and 6.6 K/9 in 111.1 innings at double-A.

That brings us to the package of pitching prospects the Rockies received from Cleveland for Ubaldo Jimenez. By all accounts, Indians’ 2010 first round pick, Drew Pomeranz, is the player to be named later and the prize catch of the deal. He can’t officially be traded until August 15th, one year after he signed with the Indians. Pomeranz is a very promising 22-year-old lefty with big-time strikeout numbers at the lower levels. Consider, however, that Pomeranz is a 22-year-old drafted out of college with only three starts above single-A. Then consider the negative aspect of his numbers, his walk rate. Pomeranz has walked almost four batters per nine innings between high-A and his short experience at double-A. If he can’t progress in the command/control department, his development could be stunted.

Also 22 years of age is Alex White, who made three starts with the Indians this season before injuring a tendon in his finger, forcing him to the 60-day DL. While White managed to post a 3.60 ERA in those three starts, his 1.4 K/BB rate was unimpressive. White, however, represents the type of pitcher that the Rockies seems to gravitate towards: The ground-ball specialist. With a sinking fastball and plus-splitter, White has consistently kept the ball on the ground throughout his career. The problem is that he doesn’t project to be a big strikeout pitcher, so his results could vary based on his BABIP. That alone is inherently risky. The other caution flag is that he doesn’t have much of a third pitch, leading many to believe his eventual role will be in the bullpen, where his value is instantly chopped down.

The other right-handed ground-ball specialist is Joe Gardner. One look at Gardner’s double-A stats and you might cringe just a little. The numbers don’t paint a pretty picture, but at least reports indicate that he continues to keep the ball on the ground at a high rate. That being said, he simply doesn’t have the strikeout upside or control to project as anything more than a back-end starter in the best case scenario.

Basically, the Rockies are placing a bet. They’re betting that Ubaldo Jimenez’s struggles are for real and perhaps permanent and they are betting on the young, unproven arms they acquired in exchange for the tall fireballer. There is a distinct possibility that none of the pitchers they acquired come close to delivering the 6.3 fWAR that Jimenez delivered last season. In fact, Pomeranz is really the only arm with the upside to stare down a five WAR season.

With a big league rotation already covered in risk and uncertainty for 2012 and beyond, the Rockies find themselves in a fragile situation. If none of these prospects pan out, they’ll be left with a mediocre starting five in a division where one of the best rotations in baseball is cleaning up and likely on their way to a second straight postseason.

At least if these arms stay healthy, they should provide value at the major league level at a controlled cost; something the Rockies will need down the road when about $27M per season will be tied up between Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.

Derek Hanson

About Derek Hanson

Doctor by day, blogger by night, Derek Hanson is the founder of the Bloguin Network and has been a Patriots fan for more than 20 years.