Colorado Rockies’ Rocking The Boat In The NL West
April in MLB yields surprises every year. Individual performances that nobody saw coming….players that flare up like a supernova in the early weeks only to wither under the weight of the long 162-game schedule. Likewise teams that get off to piping hot starts that either confirm the suspicions that some may have had that the team was ready to rise up or quick starts that baffle everyone because no one saw it coming.
The Colorado Rockies are that team in April of 2013. Waking up on Monday morning, April 22nd the Rockies find themselves cruising along at 13-5 and on top of the NL West. They have done it by wrapping themselves in multiple layers to fend off the biting cold of a nasty Rocky Mountain Spring and staying focused through multiple delays and postponements.
The natural question is, of course, “are the Rockies for real?”. Can they build upon this early success and contend in the NL West over the long haul? Or will they eventually fade to the point where they go back to being a penny stock and not a blue chip listing?
The glaring positive in the early going is the offense. The stars are playing like stars. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have both started hot and Dexter Fowler has flashed power leading some to believe his break-out season is upon us. Tulowitzki has come out of the gate posting a slashline of .328/.400/.690 while playing fairly spotless defense up the middle (which is huge when we get around to talking about the Rox’ pitching staff in a moment). Gonzalez has looked at Tulo’s production and upped it a notch posting a stellar .364/.442/.667 line. “CarGo” is, simply put, one of the most watchable players in baseball. A fluid athlete that makes everything look easy, he is taking his game to another level in the early going. In the early going he is stepping it up by pummeling left-handed pitching to the tune of .500/.524/.778. If the Rockies are going to stay in it for long haul, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez need to be season-long forces that the lineup can be built around with them performing at All-Star, if not MVP, levels.
Fowler is only hitting .250 in the early going but he has flashed his typical defense in the outfield while smashing 7 homers and drawing walks at a good clip. It’s the walks and homers that Fowler is providing that also lead us to what is fueling the Rockies offensive surge. The Rockies are second in the NL to the Mets in Runs/Game at 5.78. It’s no coincidence that they are are second in homers with 28 (the Braves lead with 29 and also sit with a record of 13-5 just like Colorado) and third in walks with 66 behind the Dodgers and Reds. (any team with Joey Votto is going to lead in walks. League rule I believe) Walks and homers are really tremendous building blocks for sustaining run-scoring and the early returns for the Rockies’ lineup has been outstanding on these fronts.
Most teams that surge like the Rockies also see periods of high production from it’s secondary lineup talents. This hot April for Colorado is no exception. Wilin Rosario is quietly becoming one of the best hitting catchers in the NL and his .302/.327/.547 start is propelling plenty of successful innings. Meanwhile 34-year old Michael Cuddyer is being more than just “a good clubhouse guy” in the early going. He’s being “a damn good player” so far posting a monster line of .333/.403/.617. This trend goes right on down to a utility man like journeyman Reid Brignac chipping in with a .372 On-Base Percentage in 30 plate appearances which is highly playable off the bench for any club.
That’s all well and good. The rosy part of 13-5 is definitely the offense for the Rockies. But how will the pitching staff weather the relentless storm of the 6-month MLB schedule. Pitching has long been a source of woe in Denver as their stadium’s elevation and dimensions have killed the hopes of building a competitive staff. The organization hasn’t exactly been known for pumping out superb pitching prospects either.
However the Rockies fast start is being led by a home grown pitcher, a sign their talent development folks can trumpet for the time-being. Jhoulys Chacin has jumped out to a sterling 1.46 ERA in 4 starts and a 3-0 record. The 25-year old hurler has yielded one lone homer and been keeping hitters off balance with a solid mix while showing very nice control with only 6 walks in the early going. Chacin needs to be “the man”. Is he ready to take the step to a 200+ inning starting pitcher that can a rotation’s bedrock? Well……sometimes a sunny day sees some storm clouds roll in. Chacin left his last start after his 99th pitch clutching his side. He has been put on the Disabled List for the time being with “back strain”. The severity of this injury and Chacin’s ability to come back pitching close the level he’s flashed so far is paramount to any shot the Rockies’ rotation has of holding up in 2013.
Backing up Chacin has been Jorge De La Rosa and Jon Garland. Both have been effective. De La Rosa is no real surprise in the short term. It’s his long-term prospects that are the scary part. His arm has long been one that observers have felt could be effective for the Rox. Waiting for De La Rosa to hit the Disabled List is an annual event in Colorado however. So while his 2.82 ERA is nice to see, it’s probably more important to monitor his innings-pitched as the season wears on. How many times will he answer the bell for this Rockies’ unit will be a huge determining factor for this club to stay afloat in the race. They desperately need for him to be an every 5th day presence.
The veteran Garland is currently leading the back end of the rotation which also includes Juan Nicasio and Jeff Francis. This is the “Low Octane” portion of the Colorado Rockies. This is where it gets very hard to project the Rockies to make noise as the season moves into the summer months. In an era around MLB where strikeouts are rising at dramatic rates the Rockies have built a pitching staff that is very defense dependent and luck dependent. No pitching staff to this point in the NL strikes out fewer batters than the Rox. A team wide K/9 rate of 6.4 looks up in despair at all the power-arm laden teams currently whiffing hitters at historic rates taking the emphasis off their defense.
The Rockies do have a solid defensive unit led by Tulowitzki, CarGo, and Fowler among others. But the pitching staff’s inability to strike out batters will not be a good match for what is likely to happen as the weather heats up. Right now the pitching staff is allowing homers at a fairly low rate (3rd best in the NL). The sheer weight of all the balls in play allowed by the pitching staff would seem to portend a few more balls flying out of parks. This is a rotation that may very well be surviving on borrowed time. Power ams in the bullpen help a little with Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle holding up well in the early going in support of ancient warrior Rafael Betancourt. But how that 5-man rotation survives a full season slate seems like a mountain nearby Coors Field that will be too tough to summit unless a series of moves is made by the Rockies to immediately bolster the rotation. The Chacin DL-stint seems is an obvious red flag for all to see.
The Rockies are fun team to watch. It’s a lineup that has been deep and effective. There is no question that the star power is there to score runs and bludgeon opponent pitching throughout the season. However the view from here seems to be fairly obvious that some counter-bludgeonings are likely on horizon for the rather meek Rockies pitching staff. The whole “marathon not a sprint” cliche is overused because it’s true in MLB. The Rockies might be the rabbit in this race….but it’s been a very fun rabbit-run so far in the Mile High City. Their fans should enjoy the surge and the fun as long as possible.