Fall Contender, or Falling Apart? A Colorado Rockies Update

By: Andrew Beaudoin

The first half for the Rockies was by no means electric. Starting July in second place in the NL West, tied for the second Wild Card spot, and fresh off a series that they didn’t lose to the LA Dodgers – the first since August 10-12 of 2018 – the Rockies seemed to be in a good place…

And then came July. And July, for Rockies fans, was a month to look forward to. Just last season, it was in July that the Rockies posted a 17-6 record out of nowhere to surge them towards a second-straight postseason appearance. Even two years ago, the Rockies posted a decent 12-12. This July, however, has been just the opposite of what the Rockies needed.

After suffering two series sweeps before the All-Star Break, the Rockies have mustered just 6 wins over 25 games in July, allowing 153 runs to just 102 scored, leaving fans wondering, “What happened here? How did we get to fifth place?” In this article, we examine ‘what’s happening’ in the Rockies organization, most notably their pitching situation. We’ll also look at major roster changes that have happened in the last couple of weeks, ultimately breaking down Colorado’s moves at the Trade Deadline and looking into potential moves in the offseason.

Another Look at the First Half

Predicted to be good, but not Dodgers-caliber by any means, the Rockies boasted an impressive Opening Day roster, featuring off-season veteran pickup Daniel Murphy and Nolan Arenado, who signed for the next eight years. But after starting the season 3-12, the Rockies demonstrated that they struggled with the same problems from 2018: pitching. In the first fifteen games, the Rockies had a run differential of -36 runs, the worst in the league.

Flash-forward to the end of May and the Rockies find themselves in a 12-2 stretch. The Rockies gave up more than six runs in just four of those fourteen games, and the offense produced plenty of runs to support the pitching. That 14-game stretch demonstrated the potential that the Rockies have to be a serious competitor. It just didn’t last long enough.
After going a respectable 3-3 against the red-hot Cubs, the Rockies lost steam. In a record-breaking four-game series, the Rockies scored 48 runs… and split the series. In one game, the Rockies managed to blow a six-run lead in the ninth inning (and 5 in the thirteenth), and in the other, closer Wade Davis gave up four runs in the ninth and earned the loss. The Rockies showed everyone that their explosive offense really can’t make up for their pitching woes.

There’s no doubt about it: the Rockies pitching staff tends to have an above-average ERA; it’s one of the consequences of playing in such a hitter-friendly park. This year, however, Colorado pitchers define the word atrocious – especially in July. Boasting an 8.16 ERA in July through the 23rd, Rockies pitchers have lost command and control, all at the same time. To have such ugly pitching at a time where the once-powerful offense simply can’t produce only spells disaster on the rest of the month.

Key Pitching Struggles

As of now, the Rockies are in trouble. They’ve been forced to rely on a number of pitchers that didn’t make the Opening Day roster. After early failures, Kyle Freeland found himself sent back down to Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes where little improvement was found (0-4, 8.80 ERA, 61.2 IP). In two starts after being called up after the All-Star Break, Freeland has not seen major improvements on the mound. Look no farther than his July 30th start against the Dodgers, allowing 8 runs (7 earned) over 3.2 innings, all without a single strikeout. The 2018 NL Cy Young contender has had an absolute 180 this season, earning himself an awful 5.33 xFIP in his 2019 campaign so far.
It doesn’t help that the Rockies have also been hit with injuries since the season started. Not only have key players like Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, and Daniel Murphy spent time on the IL this year, but experienced pitchers have been plagued by injury as well. With starter Tyler Anderson out for the season for surgery on his left knee and righty reliever Seunghwan Oh out for right elbow surgery (and released on July 28), the Rockies have found themselves with their back against the wall.

The Rockies have had to rely on three experienced starters, who each have had their share of rough patches. German Marquez looked promising in March and April, even throwing a complete game one-hit shutout against the Giants on April 14th, but lately, he has been rocked in start after start, most notably giving up 11 runs in 2.2 innings against San Francisco on July 15th. Antonio Senzatela has been average at best, with a higher ground ball rate than years past, but also a markedly higher home run rate. Rebounding from a tough 2018 season where he was sent to Triple-A for a while, Jon Gray seems to be the Rockies most consistent starter (10-7, 3.88 ERA, 88 FIP-). He demonstrated mastery of the mound on Monday night, allowing just one run and three hits over 8.0 IP in a statement win over the Dodgers.

Rookie call-up Peter Lambert has shown promise (7 IP, 9 K, 1 ER against Cubs in debut), but has also given up his share of runs (11 HR in 52.0 IP, 5.71 ERA). The Rockies have also switched in other pitchers in the fifth rotation spot, including Jeff Hoffman (1-3, 6.57 ERA) and former Texas Ranger Chi Chi Gonzalez (0-3, 5.03 ERA). The Rockies are looking into other options for consistent starters, including Chris Rusin, who has only 1 IP over two rocky games after recovering from a back strain earlier this year but has looked better in Triple-A as a starter.

Ask any Rockies fan what the worst part of the team is, and 98 out of 100 will tell you it’s the bullpen. Suffering in 2018 chiefly from Bryan Shaw’s nightmare campaign (4-6, ending strong enough to finish with a 5.93 ERA), as well as recently from the inconsistencies of Mike Dunn (released outright in June) and DJ Johnson (9.26 ERA over 11.2 IP). This year, the bullpen woes have come from almost everyone. The lowest three active relief ERA’s are 1.56, 3.29, and 3.91, belonging to Scott Oberg, Jake McGee, and Carlos Estevez, respectively.

Early in the season, GM Jeff Bridich experimented with younger relievers, most notably Jairo Diaz and Jesus Tinoco. Diaz has had a very on-again, off-again season with Colorado, gathering 7 holds but also managing to give up 19 earned runs across 33.1 innings; all of this has balanced out to an even 0.2 WAR. Tinoco, who came to Colorado in the 2015 Tulowitzki trade (along with righty Jeff Hoffman), has struggled with the long ball, giving up five home runs in just 13.0 innings pitched. If he can increase his ground ball rate (now at 48.9%), expect him to appear in bigger situations with the Rockies. Also, keep an eye out for Harrison Musgrave (3.60 ERA over 10.0 IP), who spent much of 2018 with the Rockies but suffered an elbow injury in early May, and is now in a rehab assignment in Albuquerque. His experience on the mound in Denver can only help a young, struggling bullpen.

Some Excitement over Yonder

On July 10th, the Rockies signed veteran first baseman Yonder Alonso to a minor league deal, one week after being released by the Chicago White Sox. This was a bit of a gamble, as Alonso was batting a deplorable .178/.275/.301 (featuring a .199 BABIP) over 67 games. But after a couple weeks in Triple-A Albuquerque, Alonso improved to a .419 average, a .458 BABIP, and a much better strikeout rate (13.2% vs 21.1%).

Of his resurgence at the plate, Alonso remarked that he “[…] was putting together some really good, grinding at-bats, and when I was hitting the ball, hitting the ball solid to all fields.” The day after being called up by the Rockies, Alonso made the most of a ninth-inning pinch-hit opportunity, hitting an RBI double off Washington’s Michael Blazek for the only run the Rockies would score that game. He’s 6-for-17 over his time with the Rockies, with a home run and three doubles. If Alonso can continue to put together solid at-bats, expect him to play a lot more as the Rockies trudge through the rest of the year. His presence at first base will also take some pressure off of Daniel Murphy, who has been tasked with playing first base nearly every day since the Rockies released Mark Reynolds on July 28.

A Quiet Trade Deadline

Despite major moves across the successful teams of the MLB, the Rockies stayed under the radar, acquiring two minor leaguers on July 31. The larger move sent Class A lefty pitcher Alfredo Garcia to the New York Yankees in exchange for righty Joe Harvey, who made his MLB debut earlier this year. Harvey pitched just 10.0 innings with New York this year and has a 4.50 ERA to show for it, but he has some promising stuff. With the Yankees Triple-A affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barr, Harvey averaged 11.09 K/9 over 60 relief outings. In the majors, Harvey struck out 11, but he did also issue 7 walks.

If Harvey can stay cool on the mound, he could be a valuable addition to Colorado’s struggling bullpen. Of course, pitching at Coors Field is no easy feat, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how Harvey does with the Rockies. Overall, however, this was an average pickup for Colorado that will have short-term effects, assuming Harvey does well enough in Albuquerque to be called up this year. Need I mention the disappointing addition of James Pazos in April that the Rockies made? Pazos, a career 3.54 ERA pitcher in the majors, has struggled to find his stuff in Albuquerque (0-1, 9.89 (!!) ERA over 33.2 IP), and likely won’t find his way to the Colorado bullpen this year.

The Rockies made one more pickup on July 31, sending international pool money to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for minor league CF Jimmy Herron. The 23-year-old, going as far as High A Myrtle Beach, hit just .220 with 4 home runs in 92 games this year. With a meager .312 wOBA and sad .261 BABIP, Herron might not see major league action for a long time. He’s one of those prospects that Colorado is hoping to build up in the next few years. In the meantime, Herron has been assigned to Class A Advanced Lancaster.

Offseason Sellers?

If you had told me at the beginning of the season that the Rockies would be selling after the season is over, I would have looked on in disbelief. Yet while writing this article, I find it hard to see the Rockies buying up after this season. Sure, there’s plenty of baseball left to play, but after a terrible July, hopes are down for Rockies fans. A recent SB Nation poll found that two months after fan confidence in the Rockies organization was at 89%, opinions had slumped to just 21% confidence in the team. It would take a miracle for the Rockies to reach the postseason this year, but for the Rockies not to completely give up, they need to do well enough not to finish fifth in the NL West.

If the Rockies do end up selling this year, there are a few good options for other teams. Scott Oberg is by far the Rockies’ most reliable reliever this season. As the only pitcher on the Rockies’ active roster with a sub-3.00 ERA (1.56), the setup man has thrived in pressure situations, making him an attractive target for teams needing late-inning control, especially the Dodgers. Despite a higher walk rate than last year, batters have hit only .186 against Oberg in 2019, and only .240 when the ball is put into play. Oberg could certainly be a valuable target for teams that want contract control, as he becomes a free agent in 2022.

Wade Davis has disappointed Rockies fans again and again. After recording 43 saves in 2018, the veteran closer has notched just 15 saves in the Rockies’ 111 games and has earned a horrendous ERA of 6.82. While many Rockies fans would be happy to see Davis leave (one of my friends even calls him Wade “Blow-the-game” Davis), some teams might not want to take a chance on him. Perhaps Davis has been burned out by consistent time in Coors Field and could turn it around elsewhere. After all, he’s 7-for-7 in saves with a 0.68 ERA on the road, but 8-for-10 in saves with an 11.29 ERA at Coors Field. Davis reminds me of Greg Holland, who had an abysmal August and September in 2017 after earning Reliever of the Month twice that year; now he’s with Arizona, posting a 4.41 ERA with 17 saves. Teams have to ask themselves if they want to take a chance on a struggling closer like Davis. Even the Rockies were fed up with Davis’ shortcomings this season and moved him into a middle reliever role, awarding Scott Oberg the title of closer for the foreseeable future.

Ian Desmond is having a turnaround season after posting one of the highest ground ball rates (62.0% in 2018) in the MLB. His efforts to avoid a second-straight M-SABR “Aluminum Slugger” award haven’t gone unnoticed. This season, Desmond has the highest wOBA of his career (.341) since his 2012 Silver Slugger campaign with the Washington Nationals (.362). Though it would be a risk for any team to take a player with a strikeout rate as high as Desmond’s (25.1%), he is still a veteran player who can generate good power for any team who might pick him up.

Had the Rockies turned their current skid around before the Trade Deadline, Bridich would likely have bought another starting pitcher to bolster the rotation. However, by doing nothing, the Rockies will hold on to their top prospect (MLB Pipeline 12th overall) Brendan Rodgers, even though he is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. They also keep southpaw Ryan Rolison (89th overall) and third baseman Colton Welker. While they might splash in some pitching in the offseason, the organization’s dedication to “homegrown” players (CarGo, Tulowitzki, Arenado, Dahl, Story, Helton… the list goes on) will definitely continue.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what Jeff Bridich sees in his Rockies as we head into the remainder of the season. If the Rockies are looking to sell a big name off their roster, they will likely do so at the end of the season. For Rockies fans, it looks like it’ll be a tough end to the season, as FiveThirtyEight claims the Rockies have a 3% chance to make the postseason. At least diehards like myself can look forward to more young players getting some playing time in the major leagues to build up experience before the 2020 season rolls around.

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