Saturday, March 01, 2008

Around the Horn: Starters

At last, I'm back in the baseball blogging saddle. It took me a while, but spring training games started a few days ago and despite how excited I was to start the (fake) season again, it was a little difficult to get back in the habit. I've finally kicked some rust off, kept blogging football over at Gang Gridiron while reading baseball blogs madly, and although it's still a dadgum 29 days until Opening Day, am already more than ready for the season to start. MLB.com Gameday, which I have to use until I get home in May, is good in the regular season, but slow as hell in spring, so basically I get a quick summation of each inning if I'm lucky and it doesn't freeze completely. Which at the moment it is doing.

Onwards and upwards. We explore the starting rotation today, and the preview is followed by my deeply unscientific projections for their 2008 season. I don't run zillions of simulations or number-crunching; I just pick reasonably and mark whether I expect an increase, decline, or level from their 2007 performances (INC/DEC/LEV).

Projected:
1. Jeff Francis
2. Aaron Cook
3. Ubaldo Jimenez
4. Jason Hirsh
5. Franklin Morales (failing that, Mark Redman/Kip Wells/Josh Towers, but I prefer not to think about that possibility)

#26, L/L Jeff Francis: The 27-year-old Canadian lefty is now being hailed as the ace of the staff after a 17-9/4.22 record last year and starting three games in the playoffs. At this time last year, Aaron Cook had taken the Opening Day starter label, but it'll be Francis facing off against Adam Wainwright in St. Louis come March 31. Francis doesn't have typical ace stuff -- which to say, him hitting 90 on the radar gun is a rarity. He switches sides of the plate, has a crafty changeup, and relies on offspeed and deception. He's not going to blow anyone away, but when he's mixing up his stuff, he can be as good as anyone in the game. He's always prone to having to work through traffic, and still can give up big innings, but he's mastered the knack of Coors (home ERA is lower than his road ERA) and will be looked to as #1. For a time, though, as the kids develop, they could easily be threatening to steal his position. Francis, the ultimate humble team player, won't be kicking up much of a fuss. He has said it doesn't matter to him if he wins zero games, as long as the team wins 90-95. That's part of the mindset that makes the Rockies so fun to root for. Francis comes into 2008 looking to fulfill heightened expectations and not take a disappointing step backwards after maturing as a pitcher last year.

2007 Line: 17-9 W/L, 4.22 ERA, 34 GS, 215.1 IP, 63 BB, 165 K, 1.38 WHIP, .278 BAA
2008 Proj.: 17-10 W/L, 4.15 ERA, 33 GS, 220.2 IP, 59 BB, 157 K, 1.34 WHIP, .272 BAA
INC/DEC/LEV: Slight INC.

#28, R/R Aaron Cook: His campaign was shut down prematurely by an assortment of injuries in August, and although he was heralded as the ace by default coming into 2007, he was instead unseated by Francis and in fact didn't complete the season. Coming back in the fourth game of the World Series, he pitched well, 6 innings and 3 runs (but the Rockies lost, of course, and that is the last I hope to talk about what was a rather traumatic experience for me) leading to hopes that he'll be effective again once healthy. The front office certainly thought so, rewarding him with a four-year, $34-million contract extension that Cook will certainly set out to justify, since Rockies giving pitchers fat contracts in the past has worked out badly. (No, not thinking of anyone in particular, why?) His best pitch is his heavy sinker, which when located consistently low in the zone, produces groundballs galore. (However, you'd never know that from watching Torrealba call pitches, as Yorvit loves the fastball, fastball, fastball). Cook also has a curveball and slider, but will generally stick to the sinker if it's working and Yorvit remembers to call it. His biggest issues coming into 2008 will be proving he deserves the new contract and rehabilitating from the injuries that have plagued him in the past. He also could use work on improving his BB/K rate.

2007 Line: 8-7 W/L, 4.12 ERA, 25 GS, 166 IP, 44 BB, 61 K, 1.34 WHIP, .279 BAA
2008 Proj.: 13-8 W/L, 4.17 ERA, 30 GS, 189 IP, 56 BB, 95 K, 1.29 WHIP, .274 BAA
INC/DEC/LEV: LEV

#38, R/R Ubaldo Jimenez: This time last year, Jimenez was a highly regarded prospect making inroads at AAA Colorado Springs, but struggling with control and just hoping for a look-see at the big-league level. My, how things have changed. He still struggles with control, but is entering this spring penciled in as the Rockies' #3 starter and possessed of the most typically ace-like stuff of the bunch. Able to throw as high as 100 mph and regularly registering in the very high nineties, Jimenez fits the typical power-pitcher mold and is their bona-fide flamethrower. He uses his other pitches mainly to complement his fastball (the curve, in particular, still gives him trouble, and it's hit or miss as to whether he has his breaking stuff on any given day) but unlike the Francis type that can get into trouble if he doesn't have his offspeed, Jimenez can make up for it by rearing back and unleashing smoke. The problem is that he still walks too many (averaged 1 BB per 2 innings at one point last year) and is only 23. He was battle-tested down the stretch last year and in the playoffs, and managed to contain the thunderous Red Sox offense, as he was the starter in the game the Rockies lost 2-1. If he can get his wildness under control and continue to zip the flames in there, we could be looking at the start of a special career. I'll have to play it totally by ear when estimating his 2008 line, since he hasn't had a full year in the big leagues yet. But he has the talent to make it as far as the team, and he, can go.

2007 Line: 4-4 W/L, 4.28 ERA, 15 GS, 82 IP, 37 BB, 68 K, 1.30 WHIP, .228 BAA
2008 Proj.: 10-5 W/L, 3.87 ERA, 25 GS, 175 IP, 69 BB, 199 K, 1.20 WHIP, .224 BAA
INC/DEC/LEV: Strong INC.

#48, R/R Jason Hirsh: He was a dominating pitcher in the Minors, but the edition the Rockies got didn't quite fit the mold. After a few excellent early-season showings, he got absolutely hammered in the summer, up and down. He suffered an ankle injury against the Mets on the basepaths, came back, and then took a liner off the leg on August 7 (I was at that game) breaking the right fibula. The silly man stayed in and pitched six innings on it anyway, picking up the win, but that was it for him for the season. He consequently missed being able to participate in the Rockies' pennant-winning drive, although he got to cheer them on from the dugout. Returning this year, he's determined to get a chance to experience it on-field as well, and to get back to the success he displayed as an Astros prospect. Last season, he was pitching more in the Francis mold -- trying to use his curve and changeup before going to his fastball -- and since that's not the sort of pitcher he is, it didn't work. The pitching brain trust has convinced him to use his fastball as a primary pitch and then introduce the offspeed stuff from there, which is also the difference between going directly after hitters and trying to guile them into biting. At 6'8"/250 lb, he has plenty of size and can use that to go after the David Ecksteins and Ryan Theriots of the NL, and a few of the larger specimens as well. His injuries last year were mainly the flukish type -- line drives right back at the box are a total wildcard -- so he hopefully shouldn't have any major issues with staying healthy this year. This will be only his second year as a full-time starter, so he'll have to continue to learn the ropes. Mark against him: He worked for the San Diego Chargers this offseason and loves the team. BOOOOO. Jason, you're a Colorado resident now, at least for half the year, so consider switching your football alliances.

2007 Line: 5-7 W/L, 4.81 ERA, 19 GS, 112.1 IP, 48 BB, 75 K, 1.34 WHIP, .244 BAA
2008 Proj.: 11-8 W/L, 4.25 ERA, 24 GS, 157.2 IP, 55 BB, 120 K, 1.28 WHIP, .239 BAA
INC/DEC/LEV: INC.

#56 L/L Franklin Morales: Morales is a stud prospect -- a 22-year-old lefty with dazzling stuff and just as much heat as Jimenez. He commands a full repertoire of pitches and has the ability to become something else as well, but he is young, prone to wildness, and can get flustered easily on the mound. Once he can control his nerves, along with his pitches, look out. The team wants him to fill the #5 slot, but also wants him to earn it, with terrifying evildoers replacement plans Kip Wells, Josh Towers, and Mark Redman waiting in the wings. Wells went 7-17 with an ERA well north of 5 for the Cardinals, Towers went 5-10 with an ERA well north of 5 for the Blue Jays, and Mark Redman is, well Mark Redman. None of those options inspire particular confidence, and putting even one of them in the bullpen could be a bomb in disguise, but the Rox are hoping that their track record of rehabilitating wash-ups can continue. Oy vey. Anyway, about Morales. Since this is his first full year in the bigs, he'll be eased in, but they're counting on him to play a larger role, as he did have experience down the stretch last year and made his debut in the heat of a pennant race, on the road in Los Angeles, in a game the Rockies eventually won 7-4 in extra innings. Morales pitched 5 innings, allowed 1 run, and added one himself with the bat, as he's a converted outfielder, it's possible he still might remember how to hit. Cook is probably the best hitter among the Rockies starters, Francis occasionally stumbles into a double, and Jimenez is terrible, but his arm is far more important than his bat. Hirsh got a pair of hits in the Mets game he injured himself in, but otherwise isn't much to speak of, so maybe Frankie can chip in a few well-timed singles here and there. He had a strong 2-inning outing today in relief of Hirsh, allowing one hit and striking out two with little trouble, so if he can claim the #5 spot from the get-go, the team can avoid the win-hemorrhaging they might develop with Wells/Towers/Redman sucking up starts.

2007 Line: 3-2 W/L, 3.43 ERA, 8 GS, 39.1 IP, 14 BB, 26 K, 1.22 WHIP, .241 BAA
2008 Proj.: 8-4 W/L, 3.75 ERA, 20 GS, 144.2 IP, 42 BB, 115 K, 1.25 WHIP, .235 BAA
INC/DEC/LEV: INC.

Next come the relievers. Tomorrow, hopefully, but you never know.

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