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Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Rockies' rotation going to four-man

By Jorge Arangure Jr., ESPN The Magazine

Jeremy Guthrie
Jeremy Guthrie's struggles contributed to a surprising decision by Jim Tracy.


PHILADELPHIA -- Those in search of baseball innovation and groundbreaking roster management rarely go to a Jim Tracy manager media session to find it.

If anything, Tracy is often criticized for being bland and predictable. Yet in an unexpected, bizarre and puzzling session with reporters prior to Tuesday’s Rockies game in Philadelphia, Tracy delivered what might be the most unorthodox baseball decision made in years.

In what amounts to an overhaul of his pitching staff, Tracy first said Colorado would send the struggling Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen (OK, so far pretty normal), and that instead of replacing him in the rotation, the Rockies would go with a four-man rotation, with each starter limited to 75 pitches per start -- what!?!

Smart? Umm, who knows? Bold? For sure. It’s a decision that might have been made only by a manager with an “indefinite” contract.

Jim Tracy
Rockies' skipper Jim Tracy is frustrated enough to change things up.
“We had to do something that was unconventional,” Tracy said.

This is as unconventional as it gets.

First, the why: This season, major league starters have averaged a 4.14 ERA and 1.316 WHIP, have pitched 5.96 innings per start, and have allowed a .735 OPS. In contrast, Rockies starters have combined to average a 6.29 ERA and 1.728 WHIP, have pitched only 5.2 innings per start, and have allowed a whopping .915 OPS, which would be like facing Andrew McCutchen (.923 OPS) during every at-bat.

Two Rockies relievers are in the top five of most innings pitched by a reliever this season, including Josh Roenicke, who leads the majors with 41 bullpen innings pitched. Collectively, Rockies relievers have pitched a National League-high 234 innings.

Guthrie is in the running for worst starter in the majors. “It’s not benefiting him or the club [to be in the rotation],” Tracy said of why Guthrie was moved to the bullpen. “We’re throwing too many bullpen innings.”

So if this is the new era of the pitcher, well, somebody forgot to tell the Rockies' staff.

Secondly, how exactly is a four-man staff going to limit the number of bullpen innings pitched? That’s the tricky part. The answer is that it likely won’t. In fact, Rockies relievers are likely to throw even more innings with this alternative.

But Colorado’s plan is to limit the innings pitched by its more important and effective relievers. So instead of Roenicke and Matt Belisle having to soak up multiple innings or having to pitch in lopsided games, now Guthrie and Guillermo Moscoso will become long relievers who will pitch regularly.

It’s quite stunning for a manager to, in essence, make the admission that his rotation stinks and probably will continue to stink, enough so that the team might as well have two mop-up guys assigned regular work. The kink in the plan, of course, is that Colorado will have to monitor the innings pitched by rookies Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich, hence the 75-pitch limit.

“We have two rookies in the rotation, so you have to be very careful,” Tracy said. “You can’t just throw them loose on three days’ rest.”

Tracy said the Colorado coaching staff had been thinking about this plan for the past few weeks after watching Guthrie struggle. Certainly the last straw had to have been Guthrie’s last start, a three-inning, eight-hit, three-run performance against Detroit that bumped his ERA to 7.02, the worst of any pitcher with more than 10 starts.

Tracy seemed almost stunned when talking to reporters about the plan. Obviously, this is not what he expected prior to the season when the Rockies were a trendy pick to win the NL West. Instead, just minutes before taking the field for batting practice Tuesday, Tracy gathered his pitching staff and told the players the surprising news.

The asterisk in the plan is that nothing is definite. Tracy conceded that anything could be modified should one of his starters excel during a particular start. The 75-pitch limit could be ignored. Heck, if Guthrie pitches well in relief, it’s not inconceivable to think that he would be placed back in the rotation.

For the past several weeks, Colorado reportedly has been looking to trade Guthrie -- who is making $8.2 million this season, the highest salary on the pitching staff, excluding the injured Jorge De La Rosa. A demotion to the bullpen won’t help his trade market. But the only way for Guthrie to reclaim any trade value is to pitch well, and maybe pitching out of the bullpen is the solution.

“We don’t know what’s going to come out of this,” Tracy said.

Hey, credit Tracy -- at least it wasn’t bland and boring.