2017 ARMS RACE
Offseason focus on pitching
The late, great manager Sparky Anderson once said, “You give us the pitching some of these clubs have and no one could touch us, but God has a way of not arranging that, because it’s not as much fun.”
Rockies fans can certainly relate, though they might not be laughing. When they flock to Coors Field and watch a team stocked with talented young position players, they can’t help but wonder: “If we only had some pitching … ” Jeff Bridich can relate too. Sunday, he will arrive at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington, D.C., to begin his third winter meetings as Rockies general manager. Acquiring a first baseman will be near the top of his offseason to-do list, but finding more reliable arms will be front and center on his hot stove burner.
The major moves Bridich has made — from trading star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto for three pitching prospects in 2015, to recently hiring former big-league pitcher Bud Black as Colorado’s new manager, to retaining Steve Foster and Darren Holmes as pitching coaches — illustrate Bridich’s constant quest to improve the Rockies on the mound.
That said, some of Bridich’s most high-profile miscues have come trying to fill holes on the pitching staff. In February 2015, he signed veteran righthander Kyle Kendrick to a one-year, $5.5 million contract. It was a disaster. Kendrick went 7-13 with a 6.32 ERA. Last winter, Bridich signed righthanded relievers Jason Motte (two years, $10 million) and Chad Qualls (two years, $6 million). The duo combined for just 56 innings pitched and a 5.14 ERA. Bridich remains undaunted. “One of the major goals of the last two years is to find ways to, in a multitude of different ways, better ourselves from a pitching depth standpoint,” he said. “The goal is to utilize all our assets looking at pitching and looking at, ‘Who are the good young pitchers? If we’re going to make trades, who are the types of guys we should go take chances on?’ ”
Translation: Bridich knows more moves are necessary to upgrade a bullpen that posted a 5.13 ERA last season, worst in the majors, and end a cycle where the Rockies have averaged 92 losses over the past six seasons.
New pitching philosophy
Dig deeper than the won-lost record and it’s clear Bridich is overhauling the franchise’s pitching blueprint. Long gone is the four-man piggyback rotation. The Rockies also have scrapped the idea that only a certain type of pitcher — a sinkerball specialist as a starter, or a flame-thrower out of the bullpen, for example — can tame the beast that is Coors Field.
“We talked about that in my (job) interview,” Black said. “Is there a certain style that works here? I don’t think so. You know what works here? Good pitching, and making pitches and getting outs.”
The four returning stalwarts of the Rockies’ rotation illustrate Black’s point: Right-hander Jon Gray is a power pitcher who racks up strikeouts; left-hander Tyler Anderson is a control artist with an excellent changeup; right-hander Chad Bettis utilizes four different pitches; and right-hander Tyler Chatwood’s sinker induces a lot of groundballs.
“I think any style can work at Coors, if the pitcher makes his pitches,” Black said.
Mark Wiley concurs. Entering his 48th year in professional baseball, Wiley has been Colorado’s director of pitching operations since 2013. He oversees pitching from the minors to the majors and helped design a top-tobottom pitching plan for the entire organization.
“When I first returned here, there was definitely a focus on guys who could throw sinkers or guys who would throw two-seamers,” said Wiley, who was with the Rockies previously as an assistant to player development from 2006-07 and as director of player personnel in 2000. “There was definitely an effort to acquire a guy that threw a two-seamer or had a special sinker.
“But as time evolved, we realized that there is a value to guys who throw sinkers, but there is also a big value to guys who have power fastballs, who can pitch up in the strike zone. And value to guys who have a real good changeup. It really isn’t that much different than any other place.”
Bettis is thrilled with the change in philosophy.
“It’s great, especially coming from the guys upstairs, understanding that we aren’t robots and that every guy is different,” he said. “I mean, what I have isn’t what Gray has, and what Gray has isn’t what Anderson has.”
Bridich and Wiley, along with Doug Linton and Darryl Scott, the team’s minor-league pitching coordinators, have installed a strict set of criteria that young pitchers must follow in order to move up. The education begins with rookie ball in Grand Junction.
Right-hander Jeff Hoffman, the centerpiece of the Tulowitzki trade, is a prime example of how the system works.
Fans would see Hoffman’s prowess at Triple-A Albuquerque — a seveninning, five-hit, 11-strikeout performance against Reno last June, for example — and wonder why he wasn’t in the big-league rotation. But the Rockies wanted Hoffman to improve such things as his pitch command and controlling the running game.
“It’s not only about game awareness at the big-league level, it’s about mastering pitches,” Wiley said. “For example, guys that don’t have what we classify as a quality, big-league changeup yet, they have to work on it. We make them use it and develop it.”
Results of the Rockies’ systemwide plan have been decidedly mixed, tainted by the bullpen’s multiple meltdowns last season that resulted in 28 blown saves, third-most in the National League. Yet there is promise too. Opponents hit just .257 against the Rockies last season, the fifth-best mark in franchise history. Also, Rockies pitchers posted 1,223 strikeouts, second-most in club history.
Counting on the rotation
Gray, Anderson, Chatwood and Bettis, the four starters who will form the core of the 2017 rotation, have a chance to become one of the best rotations in Rockies history. The foursome went a combined 41-33 (.554 winning percentage) with a 4.28 ERA, the best mark since the 2009 rotation that led the Rockies to their last playoff appearance went 67-48 (.582) with a 4.05 ERA.
“I think I speak for all four of us, when I say we can be really good,” Bettis said. “It’s a lot of fun, and what’s great is that we are still young and we are pushing each other.”
What Wiley likes about the Rockies’ current crop of pitchers is their attitude.
“Jon Gray is tough. Tyler Anderson is tough. Chad Bettis is tough. ‘Chatty’ is really tough,” Wiley said. “One of the first things we talked about when I came back here was, ‘If you weren’t tough, you are not going to be around.’ Because there is always going to be adversity (at Coors Field). …
“We want guys who can handle it and don’t back away from it. We want guys who can win a game 6-4. We want a guy who can give up four runs in an inning and then battle through to the seventh inning.”
Toughness, however, must be paired with talent, and Colorado’s bullpen lacked proven talent last season. While Bridich said he expects rebound seasons from left-hander Jake McGee, as well as from Motte and Qualls, the Rockies will likely make moves to prop up their bullpen.
Bridich has acknowledged having free-agent talks with veteran closer Mark Melancon and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn, but he’s also said there are in-house candidates for lateinning roles. Those include righthander Adam Ottavino, who took over as closer at the end of last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery; McGee, who’s trying to come back from a knee injury suffered in June and show he can still bring the heat; and rookie right-hander Carlos Estevez, who was prematurely forced into the closer role at midseason because of injuries.
“We are getting a lot of young guys through the system who are going to be able to help us in the bullpen,” Wiley said. “We didn’t have a lot of those guys before.”
Right-hander Jon Gray is the power pitcher among the core four starters who should return to the Rockies’ rotation in 2017. Gray posted a 10-10 record with a 4.68 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 2016. Seth McConnell, The Denver Post