Rockies' ideal season relies on young arms

Gray, Bettis, Chatwood, Anderson lead promising rotation

Rockies' ideal season relies on young arms

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Rockies squad each day this week. Today's topic: The perfect season

DENVER -- Rockies fans are sustained through the winter -- and have been soothed through six straight losing seasons -- by the memory of the surprise 2007 World Series appearance. But in 2017, the Rockies are better served aspiring to recapture the spirit of '09.

There was a miraculous quality to 2007, with 14 wins in the last 15 regular-season games and a 21-of-22 run until being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. The Rockies accomplished that with three of their top five starting pitchers on the disabled list after Aug. 1.

Across the Majors, goals set for 2017

But in '09, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook started all but five of the 162 regular-season games; two of those five were made by veteran Jose Contreras, acquired from the White Sox in September for a final push. The year isn't remembered as sweetly because of the postseason exit in the National League Division Series with the Phillies, but that season should be the shining example.

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The Rockies have a strong offense and beefed up the bullpen via free agency. But the best way for the season to go as planned -- breaking the recent stranglehold that the Dodgers and Giants have had on the NL West -- is for a young starting rotation to stay healthy and pitch to its potential.

Last year's solid midseason run and the pitchers' pedigree suggest that the current crew can actually be drivers, rather than passengers, of a contending bus. Of course, a long history of pitchers merely trying to survive at Coors Field and the relative inexperience of the current crew must be overcome.

It will be a big year for right-hander Jon Gray, who set a Rockies rookie record last season with 185 strikeouts -- the most for a Rox pitcher since Jimenez's 214 in 2010. Gray's 9.911 strikeouts per nine innings was a club record, and his 8.196 hits allowed per nine innings was the eight-best in club history.

While Gray leads the staff in raw talent, righty Chad Bettis has emerged as the gritty leader. Bettis established and administrated a contest for the starters, with prizes each turn through the rotation and monthly, to enforce pitching standards. He was often winning it himself after the All-Star break, when he went 7-2 with a 3.75 ERA in 14 starts.

Last year, Tyler Chatwood threw half a season -- but it was one heck of a half. He went 8-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 80 innings away from home last season. It was the lowest road ERA of anyone with that many innings. At home, however, he went 4-8 with a 6.12 ERA. But his history is not one of a guy who couldn't handle Coors Field. In 2013, the year before Tommy John surgery cost him the better part of two seasons, he was 5-2 with a 3.50 ERA at home.

Lefty Tyler Anderson, called up in June after a lengthy recovery from an oblique injury last spring (and elbow issues for two seasons before that), had a rookie year that was much more impressive than his 5-6 record. From his June 12 debut, his 3.64 fielding independent pitching (FIP) tied for tops among rookie pitchers, his 114 1/3 innings pitched led rookies, and his 3.54 ERA was second-best.

Outlook: Anderson, LHP, COL

Anderson's fast start also backs the Rockies' strategy of building around young pitching. Gray and Anderson were first-round Draft picks, and Bettis was a second-rounder. Outside of versatile lefty Chris Rusin, a valuable starter and reliever, the candidates for the open rotation spot are similar.

Righty Jeff Hoffman is a first-rounder from the Blue Jays obtained when the Rockies dealt shortstop Troy Tulowitzki; righty German Marquez came from the Rays as part of the package for outfielder Corey Dickerson; lefty Kyle Freeland was chosen eighth overall in 2014, one pick ahead of Hoffman; and righty Antonio Senzatela, healthy after shoulder issues in 2016, is a prize from the Latin American program.

One other reason for optimism is the home performances of Gray (7-2, 4.30 ERA), Bettis (8-2, 4.44) and Anderson (5-2, 3.00).

If the starters can hold their end and pitch well at Coors, the Rockies have a shot to exceed a .600 winning percentage at home -- a prerequisite for contention. Having shown consistent offense and a history of hitting on the right combinations in the bullpen, good work from the young starters could keep the Rockies in the postseason mix.

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.