While limping to their third straight last-place finish, the Colorado Rockies did something right on Monday, signing default staff ace Jorge De La Rosa to a tidy, two year, $25 million contract. Spending $25 million on a pitcher currently sporting a league-average ERA+ who will turn 34 during the first week of the 2015 season might seem like a head-scratcher to some. But given De La Rosa’s track record with the Rockies, his impending free agency, and the dismal state of the Rockies’ rotation coming out of this season, the deal was very nearly a must for Colorado.
De La Rosa's ERA+ may be a mere 100, but among the 15 pitchers to start a game for the Rockies this season, the only other one with a triple-digit ERA+ is the perpetually injured Brett Anderson. Anderson, who had season-ending back surgery last month, has a $12 million option for 2015 that the Rockies would be foolish to pick up, given that the lefty hasn’t made more than eight starts in a season since 2011 and has spent at least 90 days on the disabled in five of his six big-league seasons.
De La Rosa has his own sordid injury history, but since returning from Tommy John surgery at the tail end of the 2012 season, he has turned in consecutive seasons of 160-plus innings, and with two more starts will have made 30 starts in both seasons as well. What's more, since 2009, De La Rosa has posted a 110 ERA+ for the Rockies and has proven impervious to the perils of pitching at Coors Field. Since the start of the 2009 season, opposing hitters have hit .244/.328/.406 (.734 OPS) against De La Rosa on the road and .254/.324/.398 (.722 OPS) against him in Denver.
Also, despite a drop in his ERA and spike in his home run rate this season, De La Rosa has shown signs of continuing to regain strength in the wake of his June 2011 Tommy John surgery. The lefthander’s velocity and strikeout rate have both steadily improved since his return in late 2012. Indeed, De La Rosa’s average fastball velocity this season has surpassed 93 miles per hour for the first time since before his surgery, and while his strikeout rate isn't all the way back up to pre-surgery levels, his improved control has resulted in a comparable strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.09 thus far this year compared to 2.19 from 2008 to 2011, his only pre-surgery seasons in which his K/BB was above 2.00). He has also steadily improved his groundball rate since his return, posting the second-best mark of his career this year.
Regardless, the Rockies needed to tie down De La Rosa, the veteran anchor of a rotation set adrift. Lefty starters Anderson and Franklin Morales are due to depart via free agency; Tyler Chatwood is likely to miss the bulk of the 2015 season coming off Tommy John surgery in July; Juan Nicasio is pitching his way toward oblivion. That leaves 2013 staff ace Jhoulys Chacin, who went 1-7 with a 5.40 ERA in 11 starts this season before hitting the disabled list with what now looks like a season-ending rotator cuff injury. He's also due to become a free agent after the 2015 season.
With De La Rosa in place, the Rockies' 2015 rotation can be built on the foundation of him and soon-to-be 24-year-olds Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek (who were born on the same day in October 1990). If Colorado can add an arm or two to that trio this offseason, it will reduce the pressure on top prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, both of whom had middling seasons in Double-A this year (Butler started off strong but crashed upon the rocks following his disastrous, and rushed, major league debut).
If that looks uninspiring, well, that’s the Rockies' rotation. But to see why Colorado needed to re-sign De La Rosa, all one has to do is try to picture their rotation without him.