The State of the Rockies Starting Rotation
For 31 years the greatest obstacle facing the Colorado Rockies has always been pitching. In the 90s, offense ran rampant in Colorado as games turned into slugfest night after night. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that a starting pitcher finally turned in an ERA under 5.00 for a full season. There is no doubt that pitching at altitude is difficult as pitches don’t always move the same at altitude as they do elsewhere and there is a small margin for error. The Rockies have yet to crack the case of how to be consistently effective as a team when it comes to pitching. Due to financial constraints and an unwillingness to spend for elite pitching, the Rockies are left to rely on homegrown talent and bargain acquisitions to fill out their rotation.
2023 was a historically bad year for Rockies pitching. Injuries decimated the rotation, as did ineffectiveness across the board and they ended up using a franchise-record 15 different starting pitchers. The key to the Rockies’ success in the past has always been quality starting pitching to a degree. The success of the 2017 and 2018 seasons hinged upon a young homegrown rotation that all managed to find success at the same time. As the 2024 season looms around the corner, the Rockies have focused their offseason on acquiring as much pitching as they could to build depth and essentially buy some time for their next batch of homegrown players to arrive.
The Rockies have brought in two new faces who aim to factor into the starting rotation in 2024 but how does the rest of the starting five look as pitchers and catchers prepare to report next week?
The Rockies rotation on Opening Day is projected to fill out as follows:
- Kyle Freeland (LHP)
- Cal Quantrill (RHP)
- Austin Gomber (LHP)
- Ryan Feltner (RHP)
- Dakota Hudson (RHP)
At first glance, and on paper, this rotation doesn’t exactly stand out as a championship-level collection of starting pitchers. Unlike in years past, it’s also older and based on veteran preference. Only Freeland and Feltner are homegrown talent, while Gomber and Quantrill arrived in trades and Hudson is a free agent signing. As a collective group of five starters, FanGraphs’ ZiPs projections show a total fWAR of 5.7, while Quantril is the only one of the group projected with an ERA under five. The quality remains in question but what do they bring to the table?
Freeland is the local homegrown boy of the bunch. After debuting in 2017, Freeland appeared to be on track to becoming one of the best pitchers in Rockies history and could even help dispel myths that pitching greatness can’t happen at Coors Field. Unfortunately, after a fantastic fourth-place finish in Cy Young voting in 2018, Freeland has regressed greatly to a fairly average pitcher. In 2023 he made 29 starts and pitched to a 5.03 ERA in 155 2/3 innings of work. The most alarming things for Freeland last season were a.) diminishing velocity and b.) an increased amount of home runs allowed. Freeland is at his best when he is able to balance his timing to throw off the balance of opposing hitters. Changing speeds, utilizing his changeup, and getting ground balls are keys to his success. At Rockies Fest in January, Freeland stated that his offseason has been focused on trying to regain some velocity on his fastball. He also says that his left shoulder is feeling the best it’s ever been since an injury suffered in 2021. The Rockies are going to have to rely on Freeland to lead the rotation while they wait for German Marquez to return from Tommy John surgery sometime in the summer.
Quantrill was acquired in an under-the-radar trade with the Cleveland Guardians early in the offseason after he was designated for assignment. For the early part of his career, Quantrill showed plenty of glimpses of being a high-quality starter. In Cleveland, he took advantage of the quality of coaching that they are known for when it comes to pitching and emerged as a great pitcher in 2021 and 2022. Injuries caught up with Quantrill in 2023 however, as he admitted he tried to pitch through some injuries before being shut down for a while. He was able to return for the final month of the season and showed some glimpses of his pre-injured self, which was enough for the Rockies to take a gamble and acquire him. Much like others in this rotation, Quantrill isn’t exactly a flamethrower. He is at his best being a finesse pitcher with an ability to throw quality offspeed pitches to compliment his fastball. The key for Quantrill that the Rockies are betting on is that he can be a durable workhorse. He threw over 189 innings in 2022, something the Rockies feel confident he can replicate if he stays healthy. Quantrill is also a strike thrower. Walks have plagued the Rockies more and more over the past few seasons and he brings a career 6.9% walk rate, which is a few ticks below the league average. For better or for worse, Quantrill attacks the zone which could prove beneficial if he can keep the ball in the ballpark.
Gomber was a key player in the trade that sent Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021. Gomber has been hit or miss over his three seasons in a Rockies uniform. Inconsistencies have hindered him these past two seasons, but Gomber has shown glimpses of being an effective starter for the Rockies, and 2023 was a step in the right direction for him. After a rough first couple of months, Gomber flipped a switch early in the summer and went on one of the more impressive stretches for the Rockies last season. From June 14 to August 28, Gomber made 14 starts and pitched to a 3.91 ERA in 78 1/3 innings. He had 48 strikeouts against 16 walks and allowed 10 home runs and a 67% strike rate. It was a step in the right direction for Gomber who had been dealing with the pressures of being in the Arenado trade. However, he still comes with concerns for the 2024 season. His 2023 season came to an early end because a back injury sidelined him prematurely once again. If he can stay healthy and effective he will be a useful piece, but back injuries don’t go away easily and tend to linger.
Felter on the other hand saw his chance to breakout derailed in 2023 after suffering a skull fracture after he was hit with a line drive in May. He was able to make a couple of starts late in the season but was shut down after experiencing some discomfort in his forearm. In terms of the pure potential of the pitchers in this rotation, Feltner has the best stuff. He has the ability to throw power fastballs and quality-breaking balls, but it’s a matter of throwing consistently. In his brief big league career, Felter has a 10.3% walk rate. In comparison, he does sport a 19.3% strikeout rate, but it’s still below league average. A normal offseason was huge for Feltner and he has been hard at work this offseason trying to get himself ready for the year. One major change is going all in on being a power fastball user. He had been using more sinkers the past few seasons, but now feels his success will stem from using a fastball that can hit 98 mph regularly to help set up his other pitches. He has the potential, but he will need to show that all the work he has put in can translate to success on a big league mound.
Lastly, Hudson was the most recent acquisition after signing a one-year deal in January. Hudson joins the club after spending the last six years with the Cardinals. Hudson is another arm that the Rockies are hoping can help eat some innings and turn back the clock to when he was an effective pitcher. When healthy, Hudson had shown an ability to be a good pitcher with the Cardinals, working as a soft-tossing sinkerballer who didn’t get many strikeouts. He relies heavily on pitching to contact and getting groundballs, something the Rockies have been valuing for 30 years. He lost the 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery and his numbers took a major hit once he returned in 2022. Those red flags continued in 2023 as he struggled to a 4.98 ERA with a 5.06 FIP in 81 1/3 innings of work. The Rockies have always liked Hudson, but now he’s sort of a reclamation project for them with the hopes he can find himself once more.
Beyond these five, the Rockies have tried to build up their depth. In-house they still have Noah Davis and Peter Lambert battling for a spot. Ty Blach has returned on a minor league deal, while Anthony Molina was selected in the Rule-5 draft and will work as a long reliever with the prospect of starting as well. There are several other minor league veterans that flesh out the depth while prospects continue to get closer. It’s going to be all hands on deck for the Rockies in the starting pitching department as 2024 will be a year of growth and development for the organization as a whole as they aim to avoid another 100-loss season and try to find a way to contention in 2025 and beyond. The key to doing that is going to happen on the mound.