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Rockies hope low-cost veterans and prospects can prop up thin rotation: “We’re going to have to find guys who post up”

Cal Quantrill has been here before. Or so he says.

Quantrill is one of two low-cost veteran additions scooped up by Colorado this offseason to help prop up the ailing Rockies rotation, which hasn’t been the same since consecutive postseason appearances in 2017 and ’18.

But don’t tell the trade piece from Cleveland that he’s just a fill-in arm on a team most believe is destined for another last-place finish in the National League West.

“We (surprised people) in Cleveland, right? We beat every projection (by winning the AL Central in 2022),” Quantrill said. “We did it by not caring what other people had to say. We knew what we were capable of, and went out and did it. There are a lot of similarities with this Rockies team.”

The pundits, and most fans, are projecting the opposite. Baseball Reference predicts the Rockies will win 66 games and gives them less than a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs, while FanGraphs predicts it’ll be 63 wins with a 0.1% postseason chance.

Among the primary reasons: a pitching staff that was among the worst in baseball in 2023 doesn’t look a whole lot different one year later. Quantrill and Cardinals castoff Dakota Hudson are the latest rolls of the dice from Rockies management with the hope that they can help revitalize a flagging rotation.

Without any big offseason signings or trades, it’s up to them and a slew of other unproven pitching options to defy those dire 2024 forecasts.

“Unless we have some anomalous year where everybody stays healthy, and then I play the lottery and obviously win that as well, because that’s never happened … we’re going to have to find guys who post up (in their rotations in the majors and high minors),” Rockies farm director Chris Forbes said.

“We need guys who have that mentality or that grit, because it’s not like we can have a taxi squad. This is Gene Hackman in ‘Hoosiers’: ‘My team is on the floor’ type of deal.”

Colorado’s spent four years taking a high-volume approach to starting pitching by accumulating prospects, draft picks and bargain-bin veterans. That strategy has come into focus over the past year amid a slew of injuries, most notably recent Tommy John surgeries for right-handers German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela.

Since GM Bill Schmidt’s tenure began in 2021, he’s brought in seven relatively low-cost veterans to plug holes in the rotation — with varying degrees of success. This year, it’s the trade for Quantrill ($6.55 million salary this year) and signing of Hudson ($1.5 million).

He’s also made trades for nine starters across eight deals, and selected eight starters within the the top five rounds of the last three drafts. When Schmidt’s strategy will start to pay off remains to be determined, but Forbes believes the franchise has more starting options going forward.

“It has to be next guy up, and with these guys we’re talking about, we’re hoping they can take that next step forward and take that opportunity (as it comes),” Forbes said. “But definitely, our upper-level pitching depth has gotten better, and better on both sides with (the rotation) and the bullpen.”

Of the Rockies’ projected starters to begin 2024, only two made more than 20 big league starts last season: Opening day starter Kyle Freeland and fellow southpaw Austin Gomber.

Another, right-hander Ryan Feltner, saw his season derailed by a line drive to the head. And the other pitcher in the rotational mix, righty Peter Lambert, hasn’t consistently started in the majors since his rookie year in 2019.

So the Rockies need health and consistency from Freeland and Gomber, and bounce-back seasons from the rest of the rotation, especially Quantrill (5.24 ERA last year in Cleveland while battling a shoulder injury) and Hudson (4.98 ERA for St. Louis last year).

Hudson, like Quantrill, believes the Rockies are “underrated” as their season begins on Thursday in Arizona.

But to Forbes’ point, for the Rockies to truly shock the baseball world this summer, they’ll need help from unproven prospects given how difficult it is to keep a rotation healthy all season.

That’s where the club’s recent trade pieces come into play.

Some of the prospects who were among the franchise-record 17 pitchers to make a start for Colorado in 2023 — such as Noah Davis and Karl Kauffmann — could get another crack at filling holes in 2024. Ty Blach, a Regis Jesuit graduate who came up in the Giants system but has been with the Rockies for three years now, is also in that category.

But beyond that, a few starting pitchers who came to the organization as part of Schmidt’s barrage of veterans-for-prospect-arm trades last summer could see a big-league opportunity this summer.

Tanner Gordon is the headliner in that category. Acquired from the Braves last year as part of the Pierce Johnson trade, Gordon features a mid-90s fastball with a changeup and breaking ball, with deception and sink to his pitches. He’s starting the year in the Triple-A rotation, and Forbes believes the righty is going to surprise people this season.

“He’s a really intriguing guy, and at some point, we’re hoping that when the (stuff) hits the fan in Denver, that we can rely on him to hold some space (in the Rockies’ rotation),” Forbes said.

The bottom line: With the Rockies having 15 fewer prospects in their organization from last year — the minor-league roster limit is now 165, down from 180 — the margin of error for having ready reinforcements on the mound is slimmer than ever.

This summer will start to reveal whether Colorado’s high-volume approach is starting to pay off, or simply extending a path to nowhere that the club’s been on since 2018.

Starting pitching prospects to watch

RHP Connor Van Scoyoc: The 6-foot-6 righty is starting the season in the Double-A rotation and could be a fast mover this year. He came to Colorado from the Angels via a trade for Mike Moustakas last year.

LHP Ryan Rolison: Colorado’s first-round pick in 2018 missed all of 2022 and then most of ’23 due to injury. He’s starting the season on the 60-day IL in Triple-A, but could be a stop-gap when he gets healthy.

LHP Carson Palmquist: A third-round pick in 2022 will start in the Double-A rotation, and could be waiting in the wings by late summer if he continues his ascension after a 3.90 ERA in 19 starts in ’23.

RHP Jeff Criswell: The A’s second-round pick in 2020 was acquired in a trade for Chad Smith in December 2022. He was a non-roster invite to spring training and made 26 starts in Triple-A last season.

RHP McCade Brown: He’ll be rehabbing until about midseason from Tommy John, but the Rockies are still high on Brown, who turned in a 5.22 ERA for Class-A Fresno last summer before getting hurt.

LHP Sam Weatherly: The southpaw is working his way back from a shoulder injury that cost him all of last season, and he has a 4.69 ERA in 20 minor-league games (18 starts) but none above High-A.

RHP Chase Dollander: Colorado’s first-round pick last year didn’t pitch in the minors in 2023 coming off a high workload at Tennessee, but with a fastball touching 98 and a plus-slider, he could rise fast.

RHP Gabriel Hughes: Colorado’s first-round pick in 2022, had a 6.21 ERA in 14 starts across High-A and Double-A before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He could be back late in the second half.

LHP Michael Prosecky: The southpaw turned in a strong 2023, with a 2.72 ERA across 13 starts for Fresno. He’ll be tested in the upper minors this season to see if he can continue that momentum.

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