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By Will Korn 

Talking Sports: Rockies' 2014 season is lost: time to prepare for critical offseason

 


The Colorado Rockies still have 30 games left to play this season. But with a dismal 53-79 record – hey, it’s still better than my Texas Rangers’ record so Rickies’ fans pat yourselves on the back – the team might start thinking about its plan of attack this offseason.

Teams can begin signing free agents 10 days after the World Series concludes. The time frame between then and the start of spring training in February will be far more important to the Rockies than anything that transpired over this sorry season.

The roster could be in serious flux, as Colorado is set to lose six players to free agency. A majority of the rest of the team is arbitration-eligible, and some will become free agents. General Manager Dan O’Dowd and the ownership group headed by Jerry McMorris and the Monfort brothers will have quite a bit of juggling to do.

Things went south for this club relatively quickly this season. The Rockies’ offense was one of baseball’s best in the first two months of the season. Led by Troy Tulowitzki’s ungodly start to the year – he was hitting almost .500 over the first 40 or so games – Colorado jumped out to a surprising 22-15 start by May 8 and the season looked promising.

But the starting pitching just wasn’t consistent enough to keep the offense in the game on a nightly basis. Tulowitzki slowly started to come back to earth and other guys also began to cool off.

Less than a month later – June 3 to be exact – the Rockies fell under .500 at 27-28. And since June 3, they’re 26-51.

Again, blame that implosion on the starting pitching. Manager Walt Weiss had no idea of what he was going to get on any given night from his starter or bullpen. Here’s the bottom line with this staff: Colorado currently doesn’t rank higher than 28th in the league in any major pitching category.

A barrage of injuries hasn’t helped things either, but the damage of what was at times atrocious – and average at its best – pitching was done long before Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer or Wilin Rosario hit the disabled list.

The offense is more than fine and can be a scary one at least in the National League when healthy and clicking. Even without Tulo, CarGo, Cuddyer and Rosario – that’s a good 115 homers and 350 RBI worth of production out of the lineup – Colorado is third league-wide in runs scored and on-base percentage. Its offense is tops in baseball in team batting average and slugging percentage.

All those guys will be back and ready to roll by the 2015 Opening Day, and I haven’t even mentioned emerging outfielders such as Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson. Don’t forget the jaw-dropping 23-year-old Nolan Arenado at third base or the ever-steady Justin Morneau at first.

The point: No money at all needs to be spent on this lineup in the offseason.

Not. A. Cent.

Instead, this offseason the front office needs to jettison some dead weight off the payroll and focus on bringing in fresh arms that can bolster the rotation in 2015.

Between their six free agents to be – Jorge de La Rosa, Franklin Morales, Matt Belisle, Nick Massett, Michael Cuddyer and Brett Anderson – the Rockies have about $38.5 million coming off the books. With that money freed up and the influx of cash from the new TV deals that Fox has with all 30 major league teams, O’Dowd and Co. will have plenty of money to spend to improve the team.

That may mean increasing the payroll from a shade over $92 million last season. So be it. There’s no escape: in today’s game you have to spend to win.

First thing is first: I’d pay the arbitration guys I want back next season. The no-brainers are Rosario, Drew Stubbs, Tyler Chatwood, Jhoulys Chacin and Jordan Lyles. Secondly: cut the fat and let all of those free agents walk, maybe with the exception of Belisle who’s had a decent season as an innings eater out of the pen.

Without De La Rosa, Anderson and Morales, the rotation is suddenly pretty shallow. Lyles and Chacin are probably the only pitchers who are locks for the rotation next season.

I’m not convinced Tyler Matzek or Christian Bergman are ready for full-time starting duties at the major league level, as they both have struggled this season. Tyler Chatwood has a shot at the rotation in 2015 and has pitched effectively as a starter in the past.

To fill the holes, Colorado should be circling three names to pursue as soon as possible.

But let’s pause a moment and remember we are on planet Earth here however. Don’t even think about James Shields, Max Scherzer or Jon Lester.

Nope. It’s Fransisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Brandon McCarthy. All three are affordable and would instantly strengthen the rotation. But with as many arbitration-eligible players that the Rockies have, the team won’t be able to afford all three. Signing two is far more feasible.

Liriano needs to be the prime target out of that group. This season with the Pittsburgh Pirates he’s only 3-10 with a 3.98 ERA, but he’s surrendered just 107 hits in 124 innings. He’s doing a nice job of keeping the ball in the yard and also boasts a nice 9.8 strikeout per nine-inning ratio. In 2013, Liriano put together a 16-8 season with a 1.22 WHIP as a strikeout-per-inning pitcher.

He’s a lefty who could immediately replace Anderson. He’s got a filthy fastball-slider combo and gets hitters to chase on the corners. He’ll miss a lot of bats while keeping his walk rate at a reasonable level. High strikeout pitchers such as Liriano succeed in parks like Coors Field.

At 31, Liriano will likely command at least a three-year deal that should be entirely within the Rockies’ price range. He’ll be coming off a two-year, $7 million deal this offseason. Durability has been an issue for the southpaw throughout his career, but he’s been serviceably healthy over the last two seasons with the Pirates. He’s well-worth the risk.

McCarthy should be O’Dowd’s secondary rotation target. His control – he’s posted a fantastic 5.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in split time between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees this year – makes him worth the price of the $10.25 million he’s being paid this season. He doesn’t put many guys on base and isn’t too far from off from being a strikeout-per-inning pitcher himself.

He’s a little inconsistent and has gone through some freak injuries in the past. But again, he misses bats and keep the free passes to a minimum. The two biggest pitfalls of big innings in hitters’ parks have always been walks and multi-run homers.

A rotation fronted by Liriano and supported by McCarthy, Chacin and Lyles is a great first step to lowering Colorado’s team ERA and helping the offense. Maybe Chatwood steps in as the No. 5 following an impressive display in spring training. With those new pieces, suddenly you’re looking at a nice rotation. It’s not an A-list group, but solid by major league standards.

Remember, this team doesn’t need Oakland-caliber pitching to be successful. The offense can mash its way to a lot of wins. It’s done it 53 times this season.

So if the starting staff can post a collective ERA of somewhere between 3.60 and 3.80, the Rockies can really boost their win total. With that rotation and offense on point, I wouldn’t put a 87-win season out of the Rockies’ reach in 2015. That puts them in the thick of the race for the NL Wild Card and maybe more.

 

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