SweetSpot: Jhoulys Chacin

Why are the Rockies mountain-high?

April, 20, 2013

You already know the Braves have been the hottest team in the National League. You also know they have the guy with the most home runs in baseball in Justin Upton. But who has the second-best record in the NL, and who, even more surprisingly, has the second-most homers in MLB? The Colorado Rockies and Dexter Fowler? Yes, for reals. But how are they doing it? Here are a couple of reasons:

Is there another "best" outfield in baseball? Adding a double dose of Uptons to Jason Heyward makes the Braves' outfield everybody’s easy-to-love unit. But the Rockies’ trio is off to a hot start. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Fowler all are slugging better than .600. You might expect that kind of performance in multiweek stretches from Gonzalez and Cuddyer. But as the song goes, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same." What has gotten into Fowler?

You might wonder, because Fowler has belted seven home runs already. He is more than halfway to last year’s single-season career high of 13. And before you might sensibly say, “It’s a Coors Field thing,” four of them have come on the road, two of them in Petco. Of course, two of them were hit off John Axford, and he probably isn’t going to get to hit against the Brewers’ former closer again, at least not with a game on the line. Yes, it’s small-sample craziness in the third week of April, but it’s also something to keep an eye on. If Fowler enjoys a big breakout as a power hitter in his age-27 season, he won’t be the first or last.

So, perhaps we can say CarGo is being CarGo, Cuddyer is doing that “professional hitter” thing and Fowler is someone to follow, whether you want to believe or not. But it’s a great place to start from on offense. Add in that speedster Eric Young Jr. is getting regular playing time as the Rockies' spare and getting on base effectively, and they even have a nice change-of-pace alternative from their big-bopping trio.

Remember Tulo? In Troy Tulowitzki's first six seasons as a regular, the Rockies have enjoyed just three in which he didn’t land on the disabled list. They went to the postseason in two of them. That isn’t quite the 2-for-3 the Giants have gotten with World Series-winning seasons when Buster Posey is available, but it’s a reminder that when Tulo is around, he’s a candidate for MVP and best player in baseball. He ripped his fifth homer of the young season Friday night. Maybe you still expect him to get hurt, but here’s hoping he doesn’t -- you want to see the great ones play, and there’s no doubt Tulo has the talent to be counted among them.

Add in catcher Wilin Rosario ripping four homers, and the Rockies are getting tremendous power up the middle. Add the expected offense a team is supposed to get from the corners, and you're going to score runs by the truckload. The Rockies are doing just that, running neck and neck with the equally surprising Mets for the NL scoring lead.

The rotation is back. The interesting question for the Rox is whether Jhoulys Chacin is ready to be the staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez had been. In his young career, Chacin has put up two of the four best single-season ERAs in a full year; Jimenez has the other two. (Thanks to the strike of 1994, we’ll never know what Marvin Freeman would have done that season.)

Not to knock Jon Garland's comeback, but if Chacin silences last year’s complaints about his conditioning and injury-abbreviated season, that gives the Rockies a pitcher they can spot against any top starter in the ace-laden NL West. Jorge De La Rosa might give them a second; after missing most of the previous two years while recovering from elbow reconstruction, he has tossed a pair of quality starts in his first three turns. And who says Garland can’t pull out a season like the come-out-of-nowhere All-Star campaign Jason Marquis cranked out in 2009? OK, OK, it’s obviously early, that’s crazy talk.

Skippering isn’t particle physics. Which I say not to diminish the job Walt Weiss has done so far, but to credit it. The concern over his lack of experience at any level higher than high school appears to have been overstated. He’s keeping his bench involved and using his whole roster. He’s platooning Todd Helton, he’s showing admirable restraint with his healed-up hurlers over workloads and there is no reason to complain about his bullpen management. Of course, when you’re winning, everyone looks smart, and we’ll see how Weiss handles his first major in-season setback or extended rough stretch. But so far, so good.

Not everything has been perfect, of course. Second baseman Josh Rutledge's bat will have to come around. Chris Nelson still looks like nothing more than a placeholder at third base -- but with Nolan Arenado slugging better than .800 in Triple-A, the organization’s ultimate answer at the hot corner might be about to present itself.

And perhaps most of all, Chacin’s early exit Friday night with “oblique stiffness” is troubling. We’ll have to see whether it’s cause for concern. Just as the Rockies depend on having a healthy Tulo to win, the Rockies cannot afford anything less than Chacin on the mound every fifth start. But if they get these things, I wouldn’t bet against Colorado come October.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
ESPN headline: "Rockies bolster rotation with Garland signing" ... well, I'm not sure I would have used "bolster" there.

OK, let's assume Jon Garland is healthy after making just nine starts in 2011 and missing all of last season with shoulder issues. He was in camp with the Mariners and it appeared like he was going to make the rotation until he didn't. So he exercised an out clause in his contract and signed with the Rockies.

By the way, Garland's spring statistics that apparently made the Rockies decided they needed him in their rotation: 12 innings, 10 hits, five walks, four strikeouts.

Which is who Garland is: Not a strikeout pitcher. In other words, he's the worst kind of a pitcher for Coors Field (not that there's really a good kind). What makes Coors such a good hitter's park isn't so much the home runs, but all the gaps in the outfield: It's a batting average park as much as it is a home run park. Last year, the Rockies hit .306 at home, .241 on the road; their opponents hit .306 at Coors, .273 at home.

Instead of focusing on groundball pitchers, I've always thought the Rockies should focus on strikeout pitchers -- even if that means strikeout pitchers who walk guys. What you don't want at Coors is balls in play, because at Coors, balls in play tend to fall for hits. Garland allows a lot of balls in play, which means he gives up a lot of hits. And while he has a reputation as a groundball guy, he still serves up his share of home runs. In his last full season in the majors, 2010 with the Padres, he allowed 20 home runs in 200 innings. Not a bad total, but that was in San Diego. And it was three years ago. He posted a fine 3.47 ERA that year, but it was 4.01 on the road. So even if things work out perfectly here there is little upside.

It's a low-risk signing by the Rockies; if Garland doesn't pan out, they'll just get rid of him, similar to what they did last year with Jamie Moyer after 10 starts. The larger issue is that the Rockies still feel the need to take these stabs in the dark at veterans like Moyer and Garland, both of whom were coming off seasons missed with injuries. You don't win pennants by hoping you get lucky.

The rotation will now include Jhoulys Chacin, Jeff Francis, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Garland, with young lefty Drew Pomeranz likely headed to Triple-A (even though he was probably the team's best starter a year ago, not that that's an award to put in your trophy room).

Some people believe the Rockies have sleeper potential in 2013 with the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and Wilin Rosario leading the offense. With that rotation, I have serious doubts.
I did the Baseball Today podcast with Eric Karabell on Wednesday and randomly mentioned that Colby Lewis is one of the most important pitchers in baseball. He returned from Japan last season and was a huge key to the Rangers' World Series run, winning 12 games with a 3.72 ERA, finishing fifth in the AL in strikeout rate and then beating the Yankees twice in the ALCS and winning his only World Series start. This season, however, he's been up and down, with four starts of six or more runs allowed, but three with zero.

[+] EnlargeColby Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireColby Lewis is 7-7 with a 4.32 ERA for the Rangers, but has allowed 20 home runs.
Anyway, after bringing up Lewis, Eric and I decided to each submit our list of the 10 most important pitchers in baseball. The best guys aren't on here; we know Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia and Jon Lester are good and that they just need to stay healthy. So our lists are more a sample of guys who need to keep pitching well or guys who need to step it up. Eric's list tended more to include guys currently pitching like aces; my list tended more towards guys who need to step it up, although we did end up with a few duplicates.

Eric's list
Edinson Volquez, Reds: His ERA is through the roof (5.65), but Dusty Baker chose him for Game 1 of the playoffs last year for a reason, and needs him to anchor the current staff if the Reds are to get back there.

Josh Beckett, Red Sox: Baseball’s ERA leader until Tuesday, if he reverts to his 2010 self this team is in trouble, because depth/health is already an issue.

Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies: He’s taken over ace duties from Ubaldo Jimenez, and better keep pitching well because no other healthy Rockies starter boasts a sub-4.00 ERA.

Shaun Marcum, Brewers: The real ace of the NL Central leaders so far, he’s dealt with a hip problem lately, and the team has lost six of his past seven starts.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: The young lefty has won once in eight starts, and one gets the feeling there’s only so long Kyle Lohse can keep his ERA at 2.78.

Erik Bedard, Mariners: He was placed on the disabled list Wednesday, but don’t panic. How the Mariners play in the next month will decide which contender Bedard pitches for the final two months.

Ivan Nova, Yankees: Since I can’t trust Bartolo Colon to stay healthy or Freddy Garcia to stay competent, Nova needs to pitch like the No. 3 starter he occasionally looks like.

Colby Lewis, Rangers: Lefty C.J. Wilson seems safe, but with Alexi Ogando blowing up it’s critical Lewis cuts down on the home runs and gives the Rangers' offense a chance.

Brandon Beachy, Braves: He’s a lot better than most people think, while touted arms Mike Minor and Julio Teheran just don’t seem ready.

Rick Porcello, Tigers: He’s third on the staff in wins, but you won’t win much when allowing 21 runs over your past 12 1/3 innings (three starts). The Tigers need Porcello to fix things.

Dave's list
Colby Lewis, Rangers: Home runs have been his problem as Eric wrote, as he's allowed an AL-leading 20, just one fewer than last season.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox: The Red Sox have allowed more runs than the Yankees, so they need Buchholz to return from the DL and give them that solid No. 3 behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: Lohse isn't going to keep his ERA under 3.00, but with the bullpen in tatters, Tony La Russa needs him to keep soaking up innings ... and keep that ERA close to 3.00.

Edinson Volquez, Reds: Johnny Cueto has been really good lately, but the Reds need somebody else in the rotation to become a strong No. 2.

Fausto Carmona, Indians: He's 4-10 with a 5.89 ERA, including 1-7 with a 7.99 ERA over his past nine starts, and while that hard sinker is still there, the Indians can't afford to wait much longer.

Rick Porcello, Tigers: His ERA is 5.06, his strikeout rate is low, and with Phil Coke just demoted to the pen, the Tigers need second-half improvement from Porcello.

Bartolo Colon, Yankees: He's important precisely because he has been so good.

Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: If Arizona wants to stay in the NL West race, it needs Kennedy to keep pitching like the staff ace he's been, as he's third in the NL in innings pitched and has a 3.01 ERA (excellent for that ballpark).

Zack Greinke, Brewers: He's 7-3 but his ERA is 5.63; his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an excellent 80/12, so odds are that ERA will drop significantly in the second half.

Brandon Beachy, Braves: He's been so impressive in his 10 starts that suddenly the Braves need him to keep it up, considering their lackluster offense.

Follow Eric on Twitter @karabellespn and Dave on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Next-gen aces of the NL West

June, 4, 2011

Jhoulys Chacin and Madison Bumgarner never faced each other in 2008, but both established themselves that year in the Low-A South Atlantic League. The 20-year-old Chacin went 10-1 with a 1.86 ERA for the Asheville Tourists before a midseason promotion to Modesto of the California League. Bumgarner, 20 months Chacin's junior, went 15-3 with a league-leading 1.46 ERA for the Augusta Greenjackets.

The following spring, Baseball America named Chacin its 46th-best prospect, while Bumgarner checked in at ninth overall. Chacin made his big-league debut against the Giants in July of that year and Bumgarner followed a few months later against the Padres.

The two again failed to connect in 2010, when Chacin pitched for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox and Bumgarner for the Fresno Grizzlies, or later in the year, when both were in the big leagues. But on Saturday in San Francisco, they finally met and the matchup did not disappoint.

Their approaches varied, with Chacin working perhaps too carefully to a lineup that has showed little bite through the season's first two months. (Only San Diego has averaged fewer runs per game than the Giants, who have failed to score as many as three runs in roughly 35 percent of their contests.)

Bumgarner, meanwhile, attacked hitters from the outset and kept applying pressure all afternoon long. Their pitch counts through four innings told the story: 77 for Chacin, 39 for Bumgarner.

Colorado finally broke through in the fifth with help from a throwing error by rookie shortstop Brandon Crawford. Recalled from the minors on May 26, Crawford took a high feed from second baseman Emmanuel Burriss and skipped the ball past Aubrey Huff at first base, allowing Troy Tulowitzki to score.

Tulo was mired in an extended slump, hitting .210/.266/.357 in 37 games prior to this one, but he singled to center the next inning to drive home Eric Young Jr. with an insurance run. With Cody Ross launching a solo shot off Chacin in the bottom of the sixth, Tulo's RBI single proved to be huge.

The Rockies' wasted opportunities to extend the lead in the eighth and ninth innings. In each, they got a runner as far as third base but couldn't drive him home. And so the game remained 2-1 headed to the bottom of the ninth, which made Andres Torres' brain cramp in the fifth that much larger.

With one out, Torres ripped a double to deep right field, bringing Burriss to the plate. Burriss isn't much of an offensive threat, bringing a .270/.329/.305 career line into the game, which is why he is constantly riding the shuttle back to Fresno, but Nate Schierholtz was waiting on deck. Schierholtz is no behemoth himself, but he knocked a double in the first, and again, for a team that struggles to score runs, he's as good a healthy option as the Giants have. At the very least, he's more of a threat than Burriss. Behind Schierholtz was Huff, who pounded three homers the other night against the Cardinals as his bat seems to be getting started.

So, one out, but it's starting to look like a decent inning for the Giants. All Torres has to do is be ready to move should something happen. You let Burriss do his thing, and then if that doesn't yield results, hope one of the (relatively) big bats behind him can tie the game.

What you can't do here is what Torres did: get picked off second base. Would Burriss have done anything anyway? Or the guys behind him? Maybe; maybe not. But a runner on second with one out is better than nobody on and two out every day of the week.

A team that has trouble scoring runs can't afford to make such fundamental mistakes. Sometimes, it will get away with those mistakes -- having a great pitching staff makes up for a lot. Other times, all the arms in the world and a healthy dose of Huston Street on the other side to “close out” the game -- Ryan Spilborghs' nice running catch on a drive to the warning track in right field ended this one -- won't help.

And maybe one game in June won't end up meaning anything. Then again, the Giants didn't clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the 2010 season -- and they ended up winning the World Series.

Logan MorrisonSteve Mitchell/US Presswire
Geoff Young writes Ducksnorts, a blog about the San Diego Padres affiliated with the SweetSpot Network. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Rockies poised to win first division title?

April, 15, 2011
The Giants might have been the preseason favorite to repeat in the NL West, and the Dodgers' loss of Rafael Furcal won't do them many favors, but neither of those two teams are on top two weeks into the season. Who's riding high early? How about the Rockies?

Already 10-2, they're in first place after sweeping Thursday's doubleheader in New York against the Mets. Could the team that always seems to put the "wild" in wild card after epic in-season comebacks propelled them to October glory in both 2007 and 2009 win its first division title? Absolutely, and if the Rockies do, it'll be a testament to their adaptability.

Adaptability, you ask? That's the word I prefer, although because of those rallies to win the NL wild card, some folks might talk about their resilience. However, there was enough turnover between the various season editions of Colorado baseball -- including the celebrated switch to Jim Tracy in the dugout in '09 -- that it's somewhat hard to ascribe that to the players in isolation.

[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCould this be the year Troy Tulowitzki and the Rockies break through and with a division title?
The only pitchers still on the staff who contributed significantly to both the 2007 and '09 teams are Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales, and that's stretching the meaning of the word "significant." Aaron Cook will make that three guys if he really does come back from the 60-day DL in May.

Among the position players, you've got four holdovers: the current and former faces of the franchise, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, in the everyday lineup. They also have frequently frustrating catcher Chris Iannetta, and handy, dandy fourth outfielder par excellence Ryan Spilborghs. So as far as this entire team's concerned, we're talking about all of six or seven guys -- out of 25 -- who can talk about multiple playoff experiences in purple and black.

That isn't a negative, not by any stretch. The Rockies' turnover across five years reflects what a tremendous job GM Dan O'Dowd and his staff have done at restocking that roster and digging up value, both through player development and their acquisitions from trades and the floating pool of available talent. Building around this core talent -- or core talents of Jimenez and Tulo, when you get right down to it -- they've made inspired trades, leveraging their last season in control of Matt Holliday into Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street, or getting Jorge De La Rosa from the Royals in a nothing-seeming sort of deal. But they've also added just enough homegrown talent over that time.

Which is why I think we're better off crediting the Rockies as an organization for their adaptability. This isn't about moisturizing the ball to overcome the challenge of playing at altitude, or at least it isn't just about that. Even with the humidor, Coors Field is still the best hitters' park in baseball. That's OK, because the Rockies didn't win in 2009 because of their home-field advantage, they won because of three key inter-related factors.

First, they led the majors in quality starts, a surprising development to no little extent because they were counting on journeyman Jason Marquis and Rays roster-crunch refugee Jason Hammel among their front five. But those starters had the benefit of a quality supporting cast in the field, reflected somewhat in the best park-adjusted defensive efficiency in the National League. Finally, they finally had a lineup that wasn't entirely park-dependent and was drawing walks everywhere, leading the league in free passes. Those three play-everywhere factors contributed to a franchise-best 41-40 road record.

As far as upsetting the Giants' applecart and winning their first division flaglet, this year's team should have those same three things going for them. Gone are the days of that 2007 team that goosed its offense by depositing a pair of former first basemen, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, at other corners and taking the defensive hit that came with it. The offense is again rating among the league's best at drawing walks anyway. And on the staff, even with Cook out, thanks to the breakthrough of Jhoulys Chacin in the rotation last year and the retention of De La Rosa, they might have an even better rotation than 2009's improbable outfit. Jimenez is now better established among the game's best starters, Chacin might be the third man in a homegrown trinity of top talent.

However, the hope that Tulo stays healthy and in the lineup (and on the field) is perhaps the fulcrum around which both their offense and defense depends upon, which is why he rated well on some preseason ballots for MVP. There's nothing coincidental about the fact that, when he's been able to play a full season -- he did in both 2007 and 2009 -- Rocktober becomes a possibility. If he's able to manage another 150-game season this year, the MVP award won't be the only hardware he'll have a shot at.

Christina Kahrl helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA, and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Eric Karabell and Keith Law joined forces for Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast to talk about:

Did Rockies do enough to compete in 2011?

February, 12, 2011
Your view of Colorado Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd’s offseason moves depends on your perspective. If you work in the Rockies’ accounting department, you are acutely aware of the large trucks full of money delivered to both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez; ensuring two core pieces will breathe mountain air for many years to come. The Rockies also re-signed free-agent rotation mainstay Jorge De La Rosa and bullpen anchors Rafael Betancourt and Matt Lindstrom.

The biggest splash the Rockies made on the open market this winter was a move that wasn’t. The Rockies’ long-rumored interest in Rangers third baseman Michael Young hit a fever pitch when the Rangers “slugger” announced his desire for a trade. The Rockies and Rangers couldn’t get a deal together, and both sides stopped just short of pronouncing the deal dead this week. Instead, the Rockies opted for minor moves like acquiring Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton. The important question remains: Are they any closer to challenging for the N.L. West crown?

In a word: Yes. The 2010 Rockies won 83 games, finishing 9 games behind the Giants after a wild month of September. Entering the month trailing the division leading Padres (!) by 7 games, the Rockies lost two one-run games to the Giants before rattling off 10 straight wins -- powered solely by Tulowitzki’s hair and good looks. (Also his home runs: Tulo hit eight in that 10-game span.) Suddenly, the Rockies sat only 2.5 games out of the division lead. Unfortunately for Colorado, that was as close as it got. The Rockies slumped to the finish, eventually losing 15 of their 19 remaining games.

The Rockies proved they have the talent to take a run at the playoffs in 2010 and, by solidifying the core of their team, they’re able to add fringe pieces with potential like Lopez and Wigginton. Lopez wore out his welcome in Seattle with a (perceived) bad work ethic and poor plate discipline. Lopez was terrible at the plate in 2010 but can supply some pop -- especially after moving from spacious, right-handed-hitter killing Safeco to Coors Field. Not to mention his excellent defense across nearly all advanced metrics in his first full season at third base.

Wigginton posted equally dire numbers to Lopez at the plate in 2010, without the benefit of superlative defense. Serving as a right-handed utility bat to spell creaky first basemen Todd Helton and Jason Giambi would be the best option for Wigginton.

Getting full seasons from both Chris Iannetta and Jhoulys Chacin should only prove the Rockies have one of the best young cores in all of baseball. Adding veteran pieces to address specific concerns is the mark of a good GM. O’Dowd’s moves this winter might not be sexy, but his team is a solid pick to take down the Giants in 2011.

Drew Fairservice writes the Blue Jays blog Ghostrunner on First. Follow him on Twitter.