Depth makes Rockies' staff dangerous
Reliability defines a rotation headed by budding Jimenez
DENVER -- Rockies manager Jim Tracy spent this past weekend as Don King -- without the spiky hair and bizarre flourishes. Tracy had a big match to promote and a challenger to sell.
The Giants' Tim Lincecum had fame and a National League Cy Young Award in his corner. But Tracy felt that his own ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, hadn't received just billing. After Jimenez struck out nine in eight innings and faced down Lincecum in the Rockies' 4-2 victory on Sunday afternoon, though, Tracy felt Jimenez had proven his point.
"That's pretty special," said Tracy, whose team entered play on Monday 3 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and three games ahead of the Giants in the NL Wild Card race. "I think he deserves more notoriety than he has gotten to this point, beyond here in Denver."
National eyes don't have to stop with Jimenez, who is 12-9 with a 3.36 ERA on the season and 5-0 with a 1.63 ERA this month. The right-hander has pitched six or more innings a whopping 22 straight starts.
The Rockies' rotation:
consists of four starters -- Jimenez, Jason Marquis (14-8), Jorge De La Rosa (12-8) and Aaron Cook (10-6 before going on the disabled list Saturday with a sore right shoulder) who have at least 10 wins. Jason Hammel (8-7) is knocking on the double-figures door.
entered Monday tied with the Braves and Cubs for the NL lead in "quality starts" (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) with 75.
boasts four starters with win streaks of at least five games. Jimenez's victory on Sunday ran his win streak to a career-best six. Cook and De La Rosa have seven-game runs, and Hammel has won five straight. The only one who didn't have such a streak was Marquis, the only Rockies pitcher to be chosen to this year's NL squad in the All-Star Game.
The effectiveness of the starting rotation -- not to mention a solid bullpen, which has turned over everyone but closer Huston Street since Opening Day -- has allowed the Rockies to weather slumps by the offense and win big when the team scores big.
"Psychologically, it's kind of tough for the offense to consistently win games," Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta said. "You're trying to come back and back and back. That's taxing. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's more difficult.
"If your pitching and defense are consistent, you're going to have a better chance of winning every game than you were if you were just an offensive-minded team."
There is a logical reason the national spotlight is late in finding the Rockies' stellar starting pitching. No one saw it coming.
The biggest preseason news involving the staff was left-hander Jeff Francis' season-ending left shoulder surgery in February. Cook was an All-Star in 2008, but beyond him, the track record of the rotation did not have anyone forecasting it to be one of baseball's best.
Jimenez was coming off his first full Major League season, 2008, which included a strong second half. When De La Rosa arrived in a trade with the Royals last April, he was with his fifth organization -- not counting a stint in the Mexican League -- and bounced in and out of the rotation before catching fire late last season. Hammel didn't join the Rockies until the end of Spring Training this year, after he lost a competition with Jeff Niemann to be the Rays' No. 5 starter.
The best-known pitcher was Marquis, who was obtained in an offseason trade with the Cubs for reliever Luis Vizcaino and had enjoyed a solid career with three clubs but was not considered a star.
And although the rotation was solid early, the team's 18-28 start, which led to the replacement of former manager Clint Hurdle with Tracy on May 29, further pushed Colorado's pitching staff out of sight and out of mind.
But the Rockies, one season removed from a surprise World Series appearance, had high internal expectations based on the talent of their staff.
Last year was Cook's breakout in terms of wins and health, but he entered this season as one of baseball's most effective ground-ball pitchers over a four-year period. Jimenez followed up last year's strong second half -- which included an 8-3 record and a 3.83 ERA -- with dominating work for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic this past March. De La Rosa's upper-90s fastball and put-away slider were keys to his going 7-3 with a 3.08 ERA after last year's All-Star break.
|"I talked to all of you guys in Spring Training and said this potentially could be the best rotation I've ever had here -- as far as [Nos.] 1-5, absolutely."|
-- Rockies pitching|
coach Bob Apodaca
The 31-year-old Marquis -- who went from the lower part of rotations with big-name pitchers as a member of the Braves, Cardinals and Cubs to a leader with the Rockies -- said the rotation he joined passed the eye test.
"I didn't really read any preseason publications," Marquis said. "I just knew the guys believed in themselves. Obviously, guys had special talent here."
Hammel said he saw the talent immediately after joining the Rockies.
"I feel very appreciative and lucky to be brought over and put on a team like this," Hammel said.
The makeup of the staff is a study in how a team in a small to middle market must be shrewd to obtain quality arms.
Cook, Jimenez and Francis are gems of Colorado's Minor League system. After a failed venture into big-money free agency in the early part of the decade, the Rockies decided to make their system the basis of future pitching.
The future is already showing itself. Left-hander Franklin Morales won a rotation spot this spring, was injured early, and now is pitching out of the bullpen because the rotation became so strong. Righty Jhoulys Chacin was called up from Double-A Tulsa, made four strong relief appearances and one not-so-stellar start, then was sent back to Triple-A Colorado Springs to continue his development. He was part of a combined no-hitter in his second Triple-A start.
The Rockies actively scout for talented pitchers who are out of opportunities and acquire them for reasonable prices. They obtained De La Rosa for cash considerations. The price for Hammel, who ran out of Minor League options while with the Rays, was Double-A pitcher Aneury Rodriguez.
Picking up a mid-career veteran and pushing him to a new level is a specialty of Apodaca's. Darren Oliver, still effective with the Angels, and Shawn Estes are examples of pitchers who revived their careers with the Rockies.
This year, the Rockies targeted Marquis, since the Cubs were trying to reduce their $9.875 million commitment to him. Turns out the groundwork was laid more than a decade ago, when a mutual friend hooked up Marquis and Apodaca one offseason for work on pitching mechanics.
When a team pieces together a staff that way, the only way to make it work is with patience.
Although Hurdle was criticized for making frequent lineup changes during the slow early going, he stuck with De La Rosa while he was going 0-6 with a 5.43 ERA through 10 starts. Hurdle never wavered in his faith in Jimenez when the righty began the year 3-6 with a 4.37 ERA.
When Tracy took over, he promised starters they could go deeper in games if they showed consistent efficiency. Apodaca, a longtime friend of Hurdle's, was a calming influence after the managerial change.
"I can get tough when I have to get tough, but they're all trying -- they're not trying to pitch poorly or trying to hit poorly," Apodaca said. "They're trying too hard. So with a calm voice and using reason, you say, 'This is what's happening. You're getting out of control because you're trying to do more.' I've seen a lot of improvement from everybody, but it was foreseeable."
The result shows up in first-pitch strikes -- a sacred tenant for Apodaca. Cook and Marquis live with the two-seam sinking fastball. Jimenez has the most diverse pitch mix on the staff but began establishing a fastball early, as have De La Rosa and Hammel. All have downward movement on their fastballs, which means they can get away with not being as fine with the location of their fastball.
No one has benefited from this patience and strategy like De La Rosa, who is 12-2 in his past 14 starts.
"I knew we were going to have a very good rotation," De La Rosa said. "I knew that last year. I had seen Ubaldo and 'Cookie.' I knew Marquis. I finished last year very good, and I wanted to carry that to this year."
The Rockies pitched well in 2007, but circumstances were different. Three of the five original starters -- Cook, Rodrigo Lopez and Jason Hirsh -- suffered injuries that cost them the final months of the regular season. Jimenez and Morales made huge contributions as late-season callups.
But beyond Francis, who won 17 games, the starters were there to keep games close and turn them over to a strong bullpen, letting timely hitting win games.
"These starters are better than we were," said Josh Fogg, who was in the rotation in 2007 and spent much of this year in the bullpen but will return to starting on Wednesday in place of Cook. "They're pitching deeper into games than we were."
The Rockies' rotation must maintain its quality without Cook. But that opens up opportunities for others to make reputations for themselves.
Jimenez, who pitched out of a man-on-third, one-out jam in the eighth inning on Sunday and extended his win streak to a career-best six games, is relishing the opportunity.
Jimenez and Lincecum will face one another again on Friday night in San Francisco. It's doubtful that Jimenez will headline the rematch before the game, but that's fine.
He prefers the headlines after a strong performance.
"Every time I go out there, it doesn't matter whether people recognize me or not," Jimenez said. "But when you're pitching well, it's going to get to a point where everybody is going to understand."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.