The 2009 starting rotation of the Colorado Rockies turned in the greatest performance of any rotation in the franchise's history. Several team records fell as the regular five hurlers took their turn and pitched very well time and time again.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De la Rosa, and Jason Hammel each started 30 or more games, and Aaron Cook got the ball 27 times. Each won 10 or more games—the only team in MLB that could make such a claim.
They totalled 953.2 innings pitched and a composite 4.05 ERA, with 94 quality starts (six or more IP allowing three or fewer ER) which was tied for second best in all of baseball.
Jason Marquis has moved on to the Washington Nationals, and Jeff Francis appears healed and ready to take his place. Let's take a look at the likely starting rotation for the Rockies. (Player ages at the start of the 2010 season in parentheses.)
Ubaldo Jimenez (26) firmly established himself as the team's number one starter. He set a record for Rockies' starters with his full-season ERA of 3.47 and had career highs of 218 IP and 198 K in the process. Just as importantly, he reduced his walk rate to 3.5/9 IP, as well as doing a very good job of keeping the ball in the park (only 13 HR allowed).
All his statistics are trending in the right direction, and given his age, expected development, and contract status (signed through 2012 with very affordable club options for 2013 and 2014) he projects as the rotation anchor for years to come.
Aaron Cook (31), the "elder statesman" of the staff, had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2009. He began the season poorly (62.0 IP, 4.94 ERA in his first 11 starts); cruised through the middle of the season (83.0 IP, 4.12 ERA in his next 14 starts) before sustaining an injury that kept him out for five weeks; then he was absolutely brilliant in his last two starts in the season's last week, tossing 13.0 IP with a 0.69 ERA.
Cook's heavy sinker plays well at Coors Field, especially with the excellent infield defense of the Rockies. His health will be a major factor in the Rockies making another playoff run in 2010.
Jorge De la Rosa (29) opened his 2009 season with no wins and six losses in his first ten starts. From the time he took the mound in St. Louis on June 5th through the end of the season he tallied 16 wins against three losses, becoming the first pitcher in major league history to open a season with six consecutive losses and then go on to win 16 games. Along the way he racked up 193 Ks in 185 IP and finished with a respectable 4.38 ERA.
This was a breakout performance for De la Rosa, who entered the season carrying a career ERA of 5.55. He appears to have hit his stride, and his ability to repeat his performance over the latter two-thirds of 2009 will dictate much of Colorado's success in 2010.
Jason Hammel (27) was brought over in a trade from Tampa Bay right after the 2009 season got underway. The Rays had used him primarily as a long reliever, and his first three appearances for the Rockies were also out of the bullpen. When Franklin Morales injured himself in his second start of the season, Hammel was moved into the rotation. In his 30 starts, Hammel produced a 4.45 ERA over 168 innings and collected 10 wins.
Hammel pitched particularly well in the last two months of the season (72.1 IP, 3.98 ERA in 12 starts) and made the post-season rotation ahead of veteran Jason Marquis. Hammel will need to continue to throw strikes in order to sustain his performance over an entire year. If he does, the Rockies will be very solid on the back end of their rotation this coming year.
Jeff Francis (29) last started a game for the Rockies on September 12, 2008 and is recovering from surgery on his pitching shoulder performed in February of 2009. His 2008 season can be viewed in a couple of different ways: either he regressed significantly or he was pitching while injured. Based on his combined 2006 and 2007 seasons (66 starts, 30-20, 414.0 IP, 4.19 ERA), the latter is much more likely.
The huge luxury for both the Rockies and Francis is that they do not need him to pitch on the front end of the rotation but rather on the tail end. However, if everything falls into place and he pitches close to his '06-'07 form, the Rockies should once again have a rotation that combines for 900+ IP and 65+ wins.
If that is the case, they will once again be playing meaningful games at the end of the season and could well challenge for their first NL West division title.
Don't forget about: Greg Smith.
Smith was injured in spring training after coming over with Huston Street and Carlos Gonzalez in the Matt Holliday trade and only made 11 starts in the minors in 2009 as he struggled to get healthy. However, he was very good as a rookie for the A's in 2008 (190.1 IP, 4.16 ERA) and could either compete for a rotation spot in 2010 or he could head back to Colorado Springs and wait to see if someone falters in the early going.
Chomping at the bit: Samuel Dedundo (133 IP, 2.57 ERA, .202 opponent's batting average at AA Tulsa); Esmil Rogers (94.1 IP, 2.48 ERA, 83 K/ 19 BB at AA Tulsa); Jhoulys Chacin (103.1 IP, 3.14 ERA, .227 opponent's batting average at AA Tulsa).
This trio of hard-throwing right-handers appear to be ticketed for the 2011 season, or possibly 2012. None had much success in limited exposure at AAA Colorado Springs in 2009 and are definitely in need of more seasoning at that level. But all of them are extremely talented, and all throw strikes consistently. Look for at least two of them to make late season appearances with the big league club when rosters expand on September 1st.
As in 2009, the success of the Rockies in 2010 will begin and end with the starting rotation. There appear to be three fairly known quantities in Jimenez, Cook, and De la Rosa, a guy with limited experience, Hammel, who sparkled at the end of 2009, and a former ace, Francis, who is coming off serious surgery to his pitching shoulder.
The bottom line is that the Rockies need for the Hammel/Francis duo to replicate what the Marquis/Hammel duo produced in 2009 (combined 4.17 ERA over 392.2 IP). If those two get reasonably close to that, then the Rockies will be at or near the top of the NL West in 2010.