For all the questions about Rockies pitching, the names of the two players at the top of the rotation to start the season have been known for some time. Once the team acquired Jeremy Guthrie from the Baltimore Orioles, it established him and Jhouyls Chacin as the two candidates to serve as de facto staff aces, at least until the return of Jorge De La Rosa.
While he is nominally the #1 pitcher in the rotation because he is pitching opening day, the Rockies are not asking Guthrie to transform into a Cy Young candidate this season. Guthrie’s success will be measured by two semi-bland but essential qualities: stability and predictability.
By stability I mean that Guthrie needs to continue to be an innings eater and pitch late into games. Over the course of his sometimes tumultuous time in Baltimore, he consistently logged 200 innings a season. The Rockies need something like that again. If he does provide that stability, the team is counting on the relative superiority of their supporting cast, as compared to the one in Baltimore, to answer for any concerns about Guthrie’s alarming number of losses the last three seasons (a stomach-ache-inducing 17, 14, and 17, respectively).
The need for predictability from Guthrie is a result of the total lack of predictability that the organization’s young pitchers have brought in recent seasons. From the top to the bottom of the rotation, each pitcher seemed to have equally baffling flashes of brilliance and ineptitude. Sometimes from month to month, sometimes from week to week, sometimes from start to start. Perhaps no two pitchers better embody this problem than the since departed, self declared enigma Jason Hammel and the hanging-on-by-his-fingernails in the bullpen Esmil Rogers. Having a general idea of what to expect from a guy from one start to the next is a crucial aspect Guthrie can contribute. If not for the success of the club, then at least for the stress level and mental health of poor Bob Apodaca.
Speaking of inconsistency, Jhoulys Chacin’s 2011 was both promising and frustrating. After a strong and consistent first half which had Chacin as a fringe All Star candidate, his command and effectiveness waned in the second half of the year. In the end his statistics still point upward. As Jonah Keri points out, the 56.3% groundball rate he had last year is a promising sign. It would be nice to see more strikeouts, and as always stamina is a concern; whether he is fat or not, he still needs to prove he can hold up for a full season.
For Chacin, the key is…all together now!….”FASTBALL COMMAND!” You’ll hear it from every analyst every time he pitches, but it’s for good reason: his secondary pitches dance like the old guy in this old 6 flags commerical. If he can set them up by throwing his fastball for a strike, he can be legitimately dominant.
Compared to Guthrie, the ceiling for Chacin is much higher. With that comes larger aspirations for success; if the Rockies are going to do damage, he needs to become an ace capable of dominating games, being a stopper, and carrying the team at times. For now the Rockies need Chacin to start the season strong, throwing his fastball for strikes and not letting his pitch count get away from him early in games. If he does that, hopefully it will be a sign that he is poised for big things in 2012.
Jorge De La Rosa might be the most important pitcher of the last 3 years for the Rockies (seriously). It was not long ago that we feared he would sign for big money with a big market team like the New York Yankees. He was a stone cold ace in 2009, battled some inconsistency in 2010, and looked poised for big things in 2011. The moment he walked off the mound with a hurt elbow last season was the moment the Rockies started to plummet from relevance.
If the Rockies can stay in the hunt until his return in June, he could be the piece that forces them into the playoff conversation. He has the most experience with the club and knows how to be an ace. If he can return to form in a reasonable amount of time, it potentially makes him and Jhoulys Chacin a formidable duo down the stretch.
In the first months, Guthrie will be #1 and Chacin will be #2. In order for the Rockies to matter, Chacin and De La Rosa will need to be the ones pitching like #1 and #2 guys by mid-summer, making Guthrie an overqualified #3 rather than an under-qualified #1.
As with any conversation about this team and especially its pitching, there are a disconcerting number of “if” statements. While the bright side of them looks pretty great, we know better than to count on that. The fear is that there is ultimately too many ifs for this rotation to succeed. If nothing else, it should be fascinating to watch things unfold.