Closer and rotation battles highlight Rockies early Spring Training

The Colorado Rockies have a lot of questions that need to be answered this spring, particularly when it comes to their pitching staff.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 21, 2023: Sterlin Thompson #25 of the Colorado Rockies in the field during a minor league spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields on March 21, 2023 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by David Durochik/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Besieged by injuries to the starting rotation in 2023, the Colorado Rockies suffered their first 100-loss season in franchise history. The roster wasn’t expected to contend, let alone reach the .500 mark despite comments from owner Dick Monfort going into the year.

Rotation stalwarts Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela will be gone for a majority of 2024 after combining for six starts last season due to UCL injuries. The starting pitching depth was exposed following several drafts that produced minimal returns and consecutive trade deadlines that were described as “malpractice.”

Because of this, waiver wire reclamations in Chase Anderson and Chris Flexen as well as trusted Colorado native and non-roster invite Ty Blach ended up making 42 starts.

This year, the Rockies have some depth to withstand the ups and downs of a pitcher’s health. It’s also why there’s a battle for the fourth and fifth spot in the rotation.

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The Fight for Four & Five

A trade with the Cleveland Guardians this offseason brought in Cal Quantrill to form a professional corps with left-handers Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber. The club hopes the success he showed in September is real after suffering shoulder issues for parts of ’23. Utilizing a split-change that resulted in more strikeouts and weak contact during his final six starts produced a promising 2.76 ERA.

Dakota Hudson signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal that includes incentives for another $1.5 million, according to Mark Feinsand of Between the guaranteed money and the second year of club control in 2025, he’s a strong favorite to earn one of the remaining rotation vacancies. 

“We’re looking for starting pitchers who are capable of matching up with another starting pitcher and keeping us in the game. He has done that in the past with the Cardinals,” manager Bud Black said of Hudson. “You look at his winning percentage with the Cardinals — you can obviously pick out certain games where he was dominant. So he’s done it before.”

Injuries limited Hudson to 268.2 innings over the past four seasons following a breakout rookie campaign in 2019 when he finished fifth for National League Rookie of the Year Award. His 4.98 ERA last year came in only 81.1 innings. Still, that would have been tops amongst all 10 Rockies with at least five starts in 2023.

Ryan Feltner, Peter Lambert and Noah Davis remain the next best options for Black. Feltner took a vicious line drive off the head and suffered a skull fracture that sidelined him for four months before a triumphant return in September. The fourth round pick out of Ohio State in 2018 has a 5.82 ERA over 140.2 innings the past two seasons.

Peter Lambert has had his own unique set of injuries since seven frames of one-run baseball in his 2019 big league debut at Wrigley Field. Tommy John surgery in 2020 cost him the better parts of two seasons. He required PRP injections in 2022 before returning to some normalcy in 2023 with 109.0 frames between Colorado and Triple-A Albuquerque.

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Davis has only six starts to his name in the Majors. He showed flashes in the April 16 start at Seattle with five shutout innings followed by 4.2 innings and one earned run five days later. Right elbow inflammation put him on the shelf for some time before posting a respectable 4.50 ERA across 14 starts in the hitters haven known as the Pacific Coast League.

With 33 games on their Cactus League schedule, Colorado have plenty of opportunities to evaluate their starters. Results

“What we see with our baseball eye — just hard statistical spring training stats, sometimes can be misleading, either positively or negatively,” Black said of the rotation battle. “That’s why you hear me talk often about the critical eye and truly what’s happening on the field. We’ll keep an eye on all that.”

Should the Rockies need to dip even deeper into their depth, capable options every fifth day exist in Blach, Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell. Then there’s the southpaw duo of Joe Rock and Carson Palmquist who represent a more promising option as the two feature among the best starter prospects in the farm system. 

Closer’s Battle

Justin Lawrence led Colorado with 11 saves last season. Tyler Kinley, however, finished the year as the club’s closer. Black has identified this as another significant competition in his clubhouse.

“There are a lot of people in my camp who truly believe that the ninth inning is different from any other inning,” Black said of the closer’s role. “There are young players who come up and do it, but usually you have to go through the rigors of a season or two to get your footing and the belief that you are a Major League pitcher, first, and then truly a Major League back-of-the-bullpen pitcher.”

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Lawrence showed glimpses in 2022 of the success he would have in 2023. Specializing in the sweeper, his three-quarter arm slot and voluminous curls tucked below his cap made him popular on social media. That exposure added fuel to the fire for opposing batters during the dog days of the season.

“The hitters evolve and the scouting reports evolve,” he said at the end of last season. “And that’s something that I’m learning really, really quickly and need to learn really quickly is teams are going to look at the scouting reports. They’re gonna look at tendencies now.”

A stretch of six weeks that produced a 10.54 ERA from July 25 to Sept. 3 saw Kinley become a closer for the first time as a 32-year-old. He had just returned from Tommy John surgery, but the veteran was willing to support the club, converting five saves in seven opportunities.

Unlike the situation with the starting rotation, certain results in the month of March may dictate who gets the ball for the final three outs beginning on Opening Day. 

Minor League Assignments

GM Bill Schmidt spoke at the Cactus League Media Day on Tuesday and discussed the youth movement that began last season with the emergence of Ezequiel Tovar, Nolan Jones and Brenton Doyle.

“We have some good young quality players,” Schmidt said. “This year, ideally, there’s gonna be some others who hopefully work their way up. I think we’re building the foundation of a pretty good ballclub.”

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He also offered some insight on where some of those top prospects will start the 2024 season before arriving in Denver some time in the second half. 

SS/2B Adael Amador will return to Double-A where he finished last season after hitting .302 with a .905 OPS with High-A Spokane. He’s ranked the 28th prospect on MLB Pipeline’s latest Top 100. 

Schmidt also said a quartet of outfield prospects all ranked amongst the farm system’s top 10 could also be ticketed for Hartford when the minor league season begins. Jordan Beck, Yanquiel Fernandez and Zac Veen have yet to show mastery over the Eastern League while Benny Montgomery’s strong performance in High-A and during the Arizona Fall League have shown him ready for the next level.

“It could happen. We’ll see how the spring goes,” Schmidt said. “You also have the DH spot so one day, one guy can DH, the three could play the outfield. We’ll try to do what’s best for each individual kid.”

Then there’s the 31st overall selection in the 2022 MLB Draft, Sterlin Thompson. He played third base a majority of the time at High-A before spending more time at second base and outfield in Double-A. During the Arizona Fall League, he split time between second base and outfield.

Can the Rockies actually send six players to one affiliate for share four spots in the starting lineup? These things, as several around the organization have repeated, will sort itself out. 

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Cactus League Lid Lifter

One year after LHP Carson Palmquist began his season in High-A Spokane, the University of Miami product got the ball for the opening contest of the spring against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“This morning, I was extremely nervous asking all the older guys what they do if they’re really nervous before a game,” Palmquist said post-game. “Being 23 years old and looking up to all those guys from the past years was really cool facing them.”

The 23-year-old threw 40 pitches over two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out four.

“It’s a different look, right? A little lower arm slot and long stride,” Black said of the young southpaw. “He’s got some deception to the breaking ball. I liked the fact that he was around the plate not a lot of big misses… Good first step for him.”

Rockies pitchers had quite the opening game, striking out 16 during the 3-0 win. Three of Jeff Criswell’s five out came via the strikeout and reliever Matt Koch struck out the side in the seventh.

Elehuris Montero provided the game-winning run with his 449 ft solo home run in the fourth. Jordan Beck and Bradley Zimmer chipped in with doubles, the former drove home the final run of the game for Colorado.

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Notes from Salt River Fields

  • The one player receiving the most attention from teammates for their early performance this spring: RHP Riley Pint. “He’s always had the stuff. But this offseason, I’ve seen him become more consistent than I’ve ever seen him and with the stuff that he has, when he’s in the zone, It’s electric.”
  • First game of Spring Training will be started by LHP Carson Palmquist. He’ll throw two innings and will be followed by RHP Jeff Criswell for two innings. Relievers RHP Gavin Hollowell, LHP Evan Justice, RHP Riley Pint, RHP Chance Adams and RHP Matt Koch will all throw a frame.