Rockies’ wobbly rotation has huge question marks for 2023

During the sunny, optimistic days of spring training, the starting rotation was viewed as the Rockies’ strength.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that one of the strongest aspects of our team is our starting rotation,” left-hander Austin Gomber said. “We know the responsibility we have.”

Seven months later, as the Rockies’ season fades into fall, optimism has turned into a giant question mark, particularly at the back end of the rotation.

Let’s start with the basics. Colorado starters entered Wednesday night’s game at San Francisco with a collective:

— 5.29 ERA, second-highest to Washington’s 5.74.

— .289 average against, the highest in the majors.

— 1.48 WHIP, second-highest to Washington’s 1.53.

— 6.75 strikeouts per nine innings, second fewest to Detroit’s 6.57.

There is a modicum of good news sprinkled into the equation. Manager Bud Black and his staff preach the importance of getting groundball outs, particularly at Coors Field, and Colorado starters have a 43.9% groundball rate, the eighth-highest in the majors. Their 3.02 walks per nine innings rank as the 11th highest, not great, but not a disaster.

But looking ahead to 2023, uncertainty looms. Right-hander German Marquez and lefty Kyle Freeland, anchors to the 2018 staff that led the Rockies to the cusp of their first National League West title, are the only sure things, but both of them have had disappointing seasons.

Right-hander Antonio Senzatela, who’s recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL, is penciled into returning next May as the No. 3 starter, although that optimistic forecast could be erased by a setback.

Contenders for the back end of the rotation include rookie right-hander Ryan Feltner, Gomber, and possibly, either right-hander Chad Kuhl or Jose Urena. Right-hander Peter Lambert, who’s struggled to recover from his 2020 Tommy John surgery, is going to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and the Rockies are crossing their fingers he’ll take a step forward.

Lefty prospects Ryan Rolison and Helcris Olivarez, who missed this season because of shoulder surgery, must prove they are healthy in spring training.

Adding a veteran starter via a trade or free agency is a possible part of general manager Bill Schmidt’s offseason blueprint. Actually, it might be a priority.

Following is a look at the known candidates for the 2023 rotation:

German Marquez: Can he regain his All-Star form of 2021? That’s a huge question. Marquez, a workhorse who’s punched the clock for 30 starts, is 8-13 with a 5.12 ERA. That’s disappointing. What’s really concerning are his ugly numbers at Coors Field, where he finished 2-6 with a 6.70 ERA and .317 average against, and where he served up 19 of his 30 homers.

Kyle Freeland: He’s the only Rockies starter with an ERA below five (9-11, 4.63 ERA) and he’s shown occasional flashes of the pitcher he was in 2018 when he finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. But consistency has eluded the lefty, and like Marquez, he’s taken a beating at Coors (5-6, 6.00 ERA, .303 average).

Antonio Senzatela: Assuming Senzatela (3-7, 5.07 ERA) can return for two-thirds of the 2023 season, he still has issues, chief among them the fact that he gets hit hard. He had a 1.69 WHIP in his 19 starts and hitters rang up a .349 average against him. That translates to 13 hits per nine innings. He’s got to find a way to miss bats or get more soft contact.

Ryan Feltner: Feltner’s 5.91 ERA is concerning, but he’s had several starts where he pitched well for three or four innings before faltering. As Black said recently, “Ryan is an unfinished product, but he’s making progress.” Feltner’s walk rate this season is down to 3.2 per nine innings and he’s shown poise and composure in some sticky situations.

Austin Gomber: The left-hander’s inconsistency in 16 starts landed him in the bullpen where he’s pitched in 15 games. Plus, after Gomber’s back injury late last season, the Rockies want to make sure they don’t overtax him.

Gomber’s numbers aren’t that different as a starter (5.85 ERA over 84 2/3 innings) vs. as a long reliever (5.14 ERA over 35 innings). The Rockies like Gomber’s mix of pitches, especially his big curveball and effective changeup, but they’re wary of his meltdowns.

Chad Kuhl: Picked up as a free agent on a one-year deal for $3 million, Kuhl is scheduled to become a free agent. He has not definitively said whether he wants to return to Colorado and the Rockies haven’t tipped their hand, either. Kuhl’s been a workhouse, making 26 starts while posting a 6-10 record and a 5.45 ERA. His complete-game shutout of the Dodgers on June 27 at Coors Field illustrated what he’s capable of, but he’s also gotten blown out, as was the case on Aug. 3 at San Diego when he got ripped for nine runs on eight hits (including three homers) in five innings.

Jose Urena: The veteran right-hander, picked up when he was discarded by the Brewers, is 3-7 with a 5.51 ERA with a 1.62 WHIP and a .287 average against. He can be a two-faced pitcher; terrific for a few innings and then knee-deep in trouble a short time later.

“He’s a competitor, he’s got poise, he’s a veteran pitcher with a good fastball,” Black said recently. “What we’re trying to do in a relatively short period of time since we got him is to try to make incremental improvement in the secondary pitches — more confidence in his changeup, a more consistent slider. We’re just trying to help his secondary (pitches) and get them to be a part of his game where they’re truly functional to go with his fastball.”

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