Sunday, May 4, 2014

The purple Kool-Aid tastes great, but there are still concerns for the Colorado Rockies

The Rockies have been exciting in 2014.
Put down the purple Kool-Aid. Just for one minute.

When Charlie Culberson laced the Kyle Farnsworth pitch over the center field wall at Coors Field on Saturday night, it brought back a feeling fans of the Colorado Rockies haven't had for a while. Sure, the Rockies had a fun April in 2013. They looked like a team that might surprise some people a year ago. However, there was something different about Saturday night.

The Rockies clawed their way back into a game they had no business winning. They should have packed it in and headed for Sunday, thinking they could get the series win with a victory. Instead, they not only came from behind, they put up eight runs in one inning, then came back from deficits two more times, capped by the Culberson blast.

The home run by Culberson was special because it came from the least likely individual on the team. The utility infielder hasn't found his spot on this club yet. He has been bouncing between the big leagues and Triple-A for a while, and started the 2014 season in a terrible slump. On top of not seeing the ball well at the plate, Culberson isn't really known for his power. He is more of a slap hitter, a traditional shortstop-type who can field well, but isn't expected to do too much at the plate. So when he contributes like he did on Saturday night, it almost seems like there is something about this Rockies team.

However, before we start talking about destiny, there are a few things that need to be discussed. No one wants to be negative when their team is winning, but before everyone puts their deposits down on their playoff tickets, a few issues need to be addressed. The Rockies are a good team, but they have a few flaws. And they may be fatal flaws.

The first issue is an concern that may as well be synonymous with the Rockies. The bullpen doesn't have one or two concerns, the entire bullpen is nothing short of a mess.

Rex Brothers may be the closer of the future, but his mechanics are nowhere near what they were a year ago when he set a club record for lowest ERA. He can't seem to consistently find the strike zone, and when he does find it, the opposition looks very comfortable and often the barrel of the bat finds the ball.

Matt Belisle, a reliever the Rockies trusted so much in the past four seasons, simply isn't as effective as he used to be. His fastball velocity is down, which has allowed the opposition to make solid contact instead of hitting weak ground balls. His arm simply may have hit the wall after a gross amount of overuse in the Jim Tracy era.

Tommy Kahnle and Chris Martin are great stories. They both are in the big leagues when no one expected them to be. Kahnle was a Rule-5 pick from the Yankees, where failed prospects and career minor leaguers are usually dished out to fill out spring training rosters and provide some competition. After five years in the minor league system, the Yankees didn't find Kahnle valuable enough to put on the 40-man roster, which allowed other teams to have a shot. Martin has the more intriguing story. He was loading refrigerators at Lowes just over a year ago. A former prospect who hurt his shoulder, Martin figured his dreams of playing in the big leagues simply wasn't going to become a reality.

LaTroy Hawkins was brought in because he is a great clubhouse guy. That term usually refers to someone who is very nice, and a good personal leader, but isn't a great baseball player. He is the Rockies closer.

None of the five mentioned are particularly bad. They simply aren't guys who can be trusted at this point. Kahnle and Martin have both been good thus far, but is the other shoe about to drop? What did the Rockies see in them that other teams didn't? Usually baseball players are loading refrigerators at Lowe's because they aren't good enough. Usually when a prospect has been around for five years and hasn't touched the 40-man roster, there is a reason.

Those five names alone should scare Rockies fans. What it says is that if a starter isn't able to go deep into a game, the bullpen won't be able to bridge the gap. If a game is close, fans will be using the white-knuckle-death grip on their lazy boys until the final out is made.

The starting rotation is the other question mark. The top three pitchers are fine. Ironically, Jordan Lyles has made his way into the top three category. Between Lyles, Jorge De La Rosa, and Jhoulys Chacin, the Rockies should be in great shape. Chacin didn't look great on Sunday, but his track record suggests that he will be fine.

Beyond those three, however, the Rockies are searching. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have both had very good starts, and they have both had very bad starts. Nicasio's inability to throw a consistent secondary pitch is a huge concern. His pitch count gets driven up because batters foul off bad fastballs waiting for the good fastballs to come. His slider and change up are used so rarely they don't have to be factored in.

Morales has electric stuff, but watching him pitch is stressful. He doesn't ever get into a groove. He could be great for one batter, then completely look lost on the next. He generally gets the job done, but it isn't without concern.

It's easy to get excited about the Rockies, and fans absolutely should be excited about them. However, there are still major concerns with this team. The offense, as good as it is, cannot be expected to out slug the opponent every night. They have to be able to win a few games 3-2 and 2-1. If they can't do that, the Rockies will eventually be in trouble.

It may be rain on the early season parade that Rockies fans are planning, but it is the simple reality. If the bullpen can hold things together long enough to pile up the wins, and the back end of the starting rotation can pitch above their development level, the Rockies might keep things going, but the more logical answer is that they are going to need help. That may come from the minor leagues, or it may come from somewhere else, but despite the winning, the Rockies still have issues and need to address them.

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  1. As usual, I agree. You're dead on with some of the pitching issues you've cited, primarily with Rex and his degrading mechanics. I hope the pitching can iron out their issues and that offense stays dominating (which is highly unlikely) at least in the longrun.

  2. Good article David, but I think those who are expecting Lyles to keep pitching at this level are in for disappointment.

    Virtually every advanced pitching stat suggests Lyles has been really lucky so far this season. His FIP is a full run higher than his ERA (2.70 ERA to 3.70 FIP). 24% of balls hit off him have been line drives, yet his BABIP is just .246, which as you probably already know, is completely unsustainable. The fact that he's averaging less than 5 Ks per 9 innings is another red flag.

    Not saying Lyles is going to be a disaster the rest of the year, but I'd be utterly shocked if he doesn't regress at some point.

  3. I like the headline of your article. My concerns with the pitching staff is why I said the other day that I am cautiously optimistic and not ready to drink the Kool-Aid yet.