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Rockies Journal: Assessing the starting rotation as regular season nears

With less than two weeks remaining before the Rockies’ season-opener on March 28 at Chase Field against the defending National League champion Diamondbacks, the Rockies’ starting rotation is almost set.

The final spot appears to be between right-handers Dakota Hudson and Peter Lambert.

For the Rockies to have any chance to improve from a franchise-worst 103-loss season, the starters have to stay healthy and pitch deeper into games. Colorado starters posted a 5.91 ERA last season, the highest in the majors and the second-highest in franchise history behind the 1999 team (6.19). Rockies starters made just 39 quality starts last season, the fewest in the National League.

Following is my prediction of what that rotation will look like, with the best-case and worst-case scenario for each pitcher:

1. Left-hander Kyle Freeland

Freeland is a team leader and projects as Colorado’s best pitcher, though he’s never come close to matching his magical 2018 season when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

This spring, the Denver native has displayed an improved changeup and his fastball is humming at more than 92 mph for the first time in five years. He says his shoulder hasn’t felt this good since he hurt it three years ago in a Cactus League game.

Best case: Freeland resembles the fine-tuned pitching technician and groundball artist who pitched to a 2.85 ERA in 2018, and he improves his middling 13.9% strikeout rate from last season.

Worst case: The lefty’s velocity ebbs this summer, allowing opponents to rake him again. Last year, his .300 opponents’ average and 29 home runs allowed were career worsts.

2. Right-hander Cal Quantrill

General manager Bill Schmidt’s most significant offseason move was trading for Quantrill, who brings some know-how to the mound and went 15-5 with a 3.38 ERA with the Guardians in 2022. Quantrill is making $6.55 million this year and is under club control through 2025.

Best case: Quantrill’s problematic shoulder stays sound. He gives the Rockies close to 30 starts and masters his split-finger fastball, leading to groundball outs.

Worst case: His shoulder woes resurface, and he discovers that pitching at Coors Field can quickly spiral into a nightmare.

3. Left-hander Austin Gomber

When the rotation crumbled last season, Gomber was a rock. He started more games (27) and pitched more innings (139) than in any other season in his career. Gomber started out 0-4 with a 12.12 ERA, but if you toss out that terrible start to his season, he posted a 4.62 ERA. He was 2-2 in nine second-half starts with a 3.86 ERA.

Best case: He continues evolving into a smart, savvy pitcher who induces weak contact and pitches deep into games.

Worst case: The lower-back problems that ended his 2023 season in late August resurface, and he continues to struggle against left-handed hitters, who smacked him around to the tune of a .372 average last season. In 2022, lefties hit just .221 against him.

4. Right-hander Ryan Feltner

Feltner has the tools. Now it’s time for him to master them.

“I’ve been with this organization for 10 years now,” Freeland said early in spring training. “I think the two pitchers with the best raw stuff I’ve seen are (German) Marquez and Feltner.”

Feltner’s arsenal includes an upper-90s fastball, slider, curveball and a resurrected changeup. The problem is that the right-hander sometimes tries to do too much. He was hit in the head by a line drive on May 13 last year, suffered a fractured skull, and didn’t pitch for the Rockies again for almost 19 weeks. He appears to have rebounded from that traumatic injury.

Best case: Feltner, realizing he doesn’t have to blow the doors off every batter he faces, evolves into a more polished pitcher, reduces his 13.9% walk rates and manages trouble, thus avoiding the big innings that have hurt him.

Worst case: He continues to struggle at Coors Field, where he’s gone 2-7 with a 7.62 ERA across 13 career starts.

5. Right-hander Dakota Hudson

Hudson remains something of a wild card because of his injury history. He lost much of 2020 and ’21 because of Tommy John surgery, and though he finished last season healthy, he was a tepid 6-3 with a 4.98 ERA in 16 games (12 starts) for the Cardinals.

Best case: At his best, Hudson induces groundballs, walks relatively few batters, whiffs a fair amount and keeps his team in the game. In his first three seasons with the Cardinals, he had a 57.3% grounder rate and 18.1% strikeout rate, and his fastball averaged 93.8 mph.

Worst case: Hudson displays why the Cardinals non-tendered him last fall. Namely, diminishing fastball velocity (91.4 mph last year) and a 45.5% hard-hit percentage.

6. Right-hander Peter Lambert

Lambert, who was drafted out of high school in 2015, turns 27 in April. Nearly three years after Tommy John surgery, he still considers himself a starter, though he might begin this season in the bullpen.

Best case: Lambert duplicates his performance from last season, when, from July 1 through Sept. 4, he went 2-4 with a 3.60 ERA over nine starts while striking out 30 and walking only 11. Lambert pitched six innings or more in his last five starts and allowed three runs or fewer in four.

Worst case: The right-hander struggles with his command, something that’s plagued him during an up-and-down career. Also, Lambert could get hurt again. He says his right elbow is sound, but Lambert was shut down late last season because of right biceps tendinitis after a poor start vs. the Giants on Sept. 10.

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