Jeffrey William Francis
Over the last three years, Francis has a 4.86 ERA on the road, and a 4.43 ERA at home. In general pitchers tend to do slightly better at home, but his home park is Coors field! It's weird, no?
Francis took a huge leap forward last year and became the ace of the Rockies staff. His ERA was actually slightly higher in 2007 than in 2006, but his strikeout rate improved dramatically and his walk rate improved slightly in 2007. Oh, and his win-loss record improved as well, from 13-11 to 17-9. Only one other Rocky pitcher won 10 games last year ( Fogg ), even though the team won 90 on the season. Francis was the rock of the rotation all year. Francis' 17 wins ties the Rockies record for wins in a season. Pedro Astacio also won 17 in 1999, and Kevin Ritz won 17 in 1996.
Aaron Lane Cook
Cook has never had a season strikeout rate per nine innings above 4 in his career. That's really not good. And yet he hangs in there, and has actually put together some really fine years. Well, one fine year, in 2006, and several other decent but injury shortened years. He missed most of the last two month of the 2007 regular season. The Rockies have signed him to a 3 year, 30 million dollar contract, so they clearly do believe in him. And they should, because they aren't likely to get anyone better for that money. But there are two nagging questions attached to Cook.
First, will his poor strikeout rate really nail him one of these years? Unlike Francis, Cook is much worse at home, which isn't too surprising since you don't want to be giving up a lot of balls in play in the giant Coors Field outfield. Aha, but Cook doesn't have that problem very often, since his ground ball to fly ball ratio is so high, near 3 in recent years. This probably helps explain how he can keep up his low strikeout success.
Second, will Cook be healthy for an entire year ever again? He missed half of 2004 and half of 2005 because of blood clots in his lungs resulting from a rib pressing against a vein. This is a freak thing unlikely to occur again. Last year's injury was not to his arm but too his oblique muscle. When I first looked at his stats I thought it was almost a sure thing he'd break down sometime this year but now I'm not so sure.
He's a talented pitcher without much of a record in the major leagues so far. He could be great, or he could flounder due to too many walks. He had a great four start stretch in late August last year when he was striking out far more than he walked, but before and after that he mostly struggled with a near 1:1 ratio of strikeouts to walks. Which pitcher shows up in 2008? Probably both, of course. I think the Rockies are going to end up with a solid front three starters when it's all put together, though.
Jason Michael Hirsh
Too many walks, too many fly balls, too many home runs. He had a 4.81 ERA last year before he broke his leg --- well, strike that, he actually pitched for five innings on the broken leg! To know what his actual ERA was before he broke the leg, I'd have to come up with pre-broken-leg and post-broken-leg splits.
Even with all this the Rockies would probably be delighted to slot him into the fourth starter slot right now if they could. But Hirsh has been shut down for most of this spring with right shoulder soreness and he's not likely to be ready by opening day. None of the contenders for the fifth starter job have been very impressive yet, which is a bad sign for the Rockies since these guys are also now contending for the fourth starter job.
Fifth Starter Spot
Mark Redman, Josh Towers, Kip Wells, Franklin Morales. None of them have a good spring ERA, which maybe isn't the end of the world given that these are small sample sizes in spring, but these guys know they are fighting for a starting spot, so can't even one of them get a mix of major league and AAA hitters out?
Morales seems to have lost velocity on his fastball this spring, but unless it's a catastrophic loss of velocity I think he has to make the rotation. He's the only young guy with lots of room to improve in the bunch. The rest of them are all past their expiry date, Tomko types, or worse.
The Rockies had a fine bullpen last year. Along with Francis the 'pen was the glue that held the pitching staff together through all the injuries to starters last year. The Rockies 'pen won 35 games last year, most in the National League. They very often gave the Rocky offense a chance at comeback wins.
The core of the Rocky 'pen is back this year. Manny Corpas, Taylor Buchholz, Matt Herges and Brian Fuentes all had an ERA below 3.1 last year, and all are back. Affeldt and Hawkins who pitched over 100 innings between them at an ERA of 3.5 are gone. The 'pen of the Rockies projects to be a strength again, but one never knows with bullpens. Can the Rockies really count on another sub 3 ERA from a guy like Herges? Given how shaky the back end of the rotation looks, the 'pen had better be good again.
Where do the Rockies fit into the NL West this year? The easy part is that they appear better than the Padres. Both the Padres and Rockies have back of rotation issues, but where the Padres appear slightly better in the 'pen and at the front of the rotation, the Rockies are much better on offense. Especially compare those outfields.
I think the Dodger pitching is going to be superior to the Rockies pitching this year. The Dodgers are at worst equal to the Rockies at the top of the rotation, and what the Dodgers have available for the fourth and fifth rotation spots overwhelms anything the Rockies have. This analysis changes dramatically if someone goes down with injury suddenly, of course. The bullpens are probably a wash.
The Dodger offense is potentially as good as the Rockies offense. It could be. Kent, Furcal, Martin, Kemp and Loney could match the production of the big four plus Tulo for the Rockies. Kemp and Loney each has to play to his potential ( and be given playing time ). Kent has to hold off a steep decline due to age. Furcal has to bounce back from injury. Only Martin appears as much a "sure thing" as any of the Rockies big four. There's also Andruw Jones --- but I really don't like what I'm seeing from him so far.
Even if the Dodger offense can't match the Rocky offense, I think the Dodger pitching makes them slightly better this year, especially since I'm now sold on Kershaw making a significant contribution sometime this year. So right now, among the four NL West contenders, I have the Padres last, with the Rockies a game or two behind the Dodgers. Where do the Snakes fit in? I'll figure that out in my next NL West preview entry.