Monday, March 12, 2012

The Scrum in the NL West: Rockies

This post concludes the series on previewing the five teams in the National League West. Previous posts have looked at the Padres, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Giants. The theme of the series was the rugby scrum because Baseball Prospectus projected the division for 2012 with all five teams finishing within seven games of each other from top to bottom. Today's post previews the Rockies. As with all of the teams in this division, a lot has to go right for the Rockies to contend and just as much can go wrong.

Things have gone downhill for the Rockies during Jim Tracy's tenure as manager of the team. After their improbable late season run of 2009 after Tracy took over, the team finished that season with 92 wins and a post season berth. They came in third place in 2010 with 83 wins and last year, sunk to 73 wins. Both the offense and the pitching have been going in the wrong direction as you'd expect. The team scored 804 runs in 2009, 770 in 2010 and 735 in 2011. The pitching remained static in 2009 and 2010 with 715 and 717 runs allowed respectively. But that number ballooned a bit to 774 runs allowed in 2011.

BP's projections is that the offense will be more robust with 791 runs scored but that the pitching will be even worse with a projected 802 runs allowed. Of course, these projections are based on an assumption of who will start in both the field and in the rotation. While the line up is pretty much predetermined, the rotation could end up drastically different than how the depth chart is based. Since the rotation is the most potentially contentious part of this team, this preview will start there.

The top two starters in the rotation are most certainly Jeremy Guthrie and Jhoulys Chacin. Guthrie was obtained from the Orioles for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. If you would consider this a rotation swap of Guthrie for Hammel, then the Rockies should have the better part of this swap. Guthrie should be much better than Hammel. But saying that, we're comparing Guthrie's results for the Orioles against Hammel with half of his games at Coors. On the one hand, you have to worry about how Guthrie's game will translate to his new home ballpark. Guthrie is not a ground ball pitcher. His ground ball to fly ball ratio was exactly one to one. On the other hand, he gets out of the AL East and away from meat-grinder offenses like the Red Sox and Yankees. He should be better than Hammel, but not by much.

The jury is still out on Jhoulys Chacin (whose name is terrible to type over and over). He has transformed himself into much more of a ground ball pitcher relying on a two-seam fastball much heavier in 2011 than in 2010. As a result, his ground ball rate skyrocketed to 56.3 percent. This seemed to be a benefit in his BABIP which was .261. But it also resulted in a much lower strikeout rate which came in at less than two strikeouts per game than what he showed in 2010. And he is still walking people at a rate of four walks per nine innings pitched. That's far too high. So his ERA of 3.69 in 2011 has to be tempered with a FIP of 4.23. BP projects him at 10-11 with a 4.22 ERA. Chacin will have to be much better for this team to contend.

The rest of the projected rotation includes Guillermo Moscoso, who the Rockies received in a trade with Oakland for Seth Smith, Juan Nicasio and Alex White. But those three shouldn't be set in stone. Though the Rockies traded a starter in Smith for Moscoso, the feeling here is that Moscoso's game will not translate well to Coors Field. He is an extreme fly ball pitcher which is fine in Oakland, but not so fine in Coors (but will be fine in three of the other NL West parks to be fair). Nicasio is coming back from a rather dramatic injury after getting hit with a batted ball last year. Nicasio looked terrific in his thirteen starts before the injury and if he can get back to that, would be a terrific benefit to the Rockies' chances.

Alex White seems to be the weakest link of this projected rotation followed closely by Moscoso. White did not have fun in his handful of appearances for the Rockies last year and does not project well. The two other contenders for the rotation are both fascinating. One is Drew Pomeranz, one of the pitchers involved in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal. Pomeranz ran into some bad luck in his starts last year and though his ERA was at 5.40, his FIP was 2.59. Pomeranz has looked terrific so far this spring and could win the job. The other is 49 year old, Jamie Moyer. Everybody is rooting for Moyer to make the team. You can't be a fan and not root for him and his 80 MPH fastball. Heck, he's be better than Aaron Cook was last year.

The bullpen situation isn't rosy. The closer is the vastly overlooked, Rafael Betancourt, who is going to be 37 in 2011. Four of the last five seasons for Betancourt have been fantastic and last year, he was brilliant. He struck out 10.54 batters per nine innings and only walked 1.16 batters per nine! That's great stuff. He will be better than the departed Huston Street. But the problem is that Street and Betancourt were better than Betancourt and whoever else is behind him. The relievers behind him are the southpaw, Rex Brothers, Mark Belisle, Josh Roenicke and Edgmer Escalona. 

Brothers had an excellent ERA and FIP last season and strikes out a LOT of batters. But he also walks a lot too. Expect a bit of a regression there. Belisle is reliable. Reynolds is effective when he doesn't give up the long ball. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough. Roenicke and Escalona only pitched a handful of games last season and that's scary.

As stated earlier, Baseball Prospectus predicts the Rockies will score 56 more runs than last year. Where will it come from? Marco Scutaro should be a major upgrade on Jonathan Herrera and Mark Ellis at second. Troy Tulowitzki is the best shortstop on the planet and should match his numbers from last year. Casey Blake takes over for Ty Wigginton at third and that seems a wash at best and considering Blake's age might be worse than a wash. And Todd Helton is still over at first. Expect a regression from Helton as he had what seemed like the last bloom of the rose last season.

The outfield is comprised of Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and the newly acquired Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer should be an offensive upgrade in right and since Seth Smith wasn't great as an outfielder, Cuddyer shouldn't be much worse. Fowler is pretty much what we saw last year and should have no trouble duplicating his numbers. A healthy Carlos Gonzalez would help greatly as CarGo missed thirty games to injury last season.

The Rockies took a step backwards in the catching department. Chris Iannetta had a very good season but is replaced this season by Ramon Hernandez. While Hernandez is a good hitting catcher, the switch could cost the Rockies a win statistically. None of the backup options are appealing and least from this vantage point.

Jason Giambi still brings a potent bat from the bench. Tyler Colvin gets a fresh start and could spell any of the outfielders. He still needs to prove he can hit big league pitching though. Chris Nelson isn't much of a utility guy in the infield and neither is Chris Young in the outfield.

The Rockies are getting some buzz in sites around the Internet. But after spending several hours looking at this team, 82 wins seems about right. There are too many question marks about the rotation and the bullpen. The catching position has been downgraded and the additions of Scutaro and Cuddyer won't be enough to propel this team into contention. A lot is being made of the "make up" of the team and team chemistry and all that. But performance is where the Rockies will win or lose. And there just doesn't seem to be enough wins in this team.

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