Assessing the Rockies' free-agent starter options

Greg Fiume

Which free-agent pitchers should Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd pursue on a limited budget?

The Colorado Rockies have been one of the forgotten teams of the NL West this offseason, joining the San Diego Padres as the forgotten middle children compared to the division-rival Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Arizona Diamondbacks.

But to be nice, today we will give the Rockies a little attention, so long as it doesn't make their ego soar higher than the altitude they play at.

With no hopes of contending this season, Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd is looking to build some rotation depth on the cheap. The Denver Post's Troy Renck connects Colorado to former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, while FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal links the team to Jeff Karstens, Derek Lowe, Aaron Cook, and Jair Jurrjens.

Coors Field and its three-year park factor of 113 can spell death for a pitcher, so there are certain characteristics that O'Dowd will be looking for: a high ground-ball percentage, low fly-ball percentage, and a reasonable strikeout rate.

So which of O'Dowd's candidates best fit the bill?

None of the five pitchers is a perfect fit, but a couple are better bets to thrive in the Rocky Mountains.

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1. The Fly Ball Guy

The first option, Jeff Karstens, reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Pirates yesterday after Pittsburgh designated him for assignment earlier this winter.

This is a blessing for Colorado, because -- as Steven Goldman says -- Karstens is a Scary Fly-Ball Guy, though he has made some strides in improving his fly-ball and homer rates:

Year G GS IP FIP FB% GB% H/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9
2009 39 13 108.0 4.84 45.5% 38.5% 9.6 1.0 4.3 3.8
2010 26 19 122.2 4.84 39.9% 42.0% 10.7 1.5 5.3 2.0
2011 30 26 162.1 4.26 36.5% 46.2% 9.0 1.2 5.3 1.8
2012 19 15 90.2 3.36 36.8% 36.8% 8.8 0.8 6.6 1.5

Even so, here is your one-word summary of what would have been Karstens' career at Coors: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

What of O'Dowd's other targets, though?

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2. The Fallen Star

The one least-likely to make an impact is Brandon Webb, who has endured a string of shoulder problems since 2009, going under the knife for his rotator cuff and labrum multiple times. Shoulder injuries are particularly troublesome to project because the recovery is unpredictable.

Some pitchers never recover, or if they do, they come back a shell of their former selves. Rotator cuffs and labrums are under huge stress when a pitcher is in his delivery, and when they fray or get impingements, as Webb's did, pitchers lose their velocity, ability to control their pitches, and effectiveness.

Once upon a time, Webb was a fantastic pitcher, by far one of the best in baseball. Armed with the unusual combination of an extremely high ground-ball rate and a strong strikeout rate, Webb was able to masterfully navigate the bandbox in Arizona and take home a Cy Young Award.

He has not pitched in the majors since 2009, when injuries robbed him of his fine career, but here's a taste of just how good he was:

Year G GS IP FIP FB% GB% H/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9
2005 33 33 229.0 3.48 16.3% 65.0% 9.0 0.8 6.8 2.3
2006 33 33 235.0 3.14 16.3% 66.3% 8.3 0.6 6.8 1.9
2007 34 34 236.1 3.17 20.1% 61.8% 8.0 0.5 7.4 2.7
2008 34 34 226.2 3.26 20.4% 64.2% 8.2 0.5 7.3 2.6

To be blunt, Webb will not replicate these results if he returns to the majors. He will never come close.

However, if Webb truly is healthy this time, there's absolutely nothing wrong with handing him an incentive-laden minor-league deal to see what's left in his 33-year-old arm.

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3. The Dark Horse

Derek Lowe is an interesting option.

The right-hander is no stranger to getting batted around, but being a ground-ball machine has always helped him to erase runners on the basepaths. His first couple of seasons with Atlanta were okay, but his ERA ballooned to 5.05 in 2011, leading to his trade to Cleveland.

FIP suggests that Lowe was very unlucky in 2011, with a higher strikeout and ground-ball rate than either of his first two seasons with the Braves, but the 39-year-old seemed to fall apart with the Indians.

Lowe still got his worm-beaters, but his strikeout rate plummeted:

Year G GS IP FIP FB% GB% H/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9
2009 34 34 194.2 4.02 25.8% 56.3% 10.7 0.7 5.1 2.9
2010 33 33 193.2 3.92 22.6% 58.8% 9.5 0.8 6.3 2.8
2011 34 33 187.0 3.67 22.5% 59.0% 10.2 0.7 6.6 3.4
2012 38 21 142.2 4.08 21.0% 59.2% 11.4 0.6 3.5 3.2

Lowe sustained no real loss of velocity on his sinker, but he did, perhaps, start to over-rely on the pitch. He threw the sinkerball a whopping 65 percent of the time in 2012, compared to 48 percent in 2011, and dropped his use of the slider from 25 percent to 15 percent.

The Indians released Lowe in August, and the Yankees gave him a shot to pitch out of the bullpen, where he was more effective.

Lowe is reportedly looking for a chance to start, and he shouldn't cost too much. Perhaps a return to the National League could revitalize the righty, and diversifying his offerings could increase his effectiveness.

The Rockies should consider taking a flier on Lowe, who might be willing to take even less money if he's given the opportunity to pitch in the rotation. He could also be a veteran mentor to what should be a young crop of starters.

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4. The Contact King

The Red Sox recruited Aaron Cook for a one-year sabbatical to the American League, and by all accounts, Cook looked... well, cooked. Facing the designated hitter did the 33-year-old righty no favours, but the most glaring contributor to Cook's ineffectiveness was his complete inability to strike batters out.

Fans could count the amount of strikeouts Cook had recorded on one hand until his start on August 21. That's a K/9 of 0.81. OK, he had a couple injuries, including a deep knee laceration that led to him only getting one start through June 24, but that is still an astounding rate of ineptitude that looks out of place over his last few seasons:

Year G GS IP FIP FB% GB% H/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9
2009 27 27 158.0 4.56 24.7% 56.7% 10.0 1.1 4.4 2.7
2010 23 23 127.2 4.57 25.3% 58.1% 10.4 0.8 4.4 3.7
2011 18 17 97.0 4.51 23.3% 55.1% 11.8 0.8 4.5 3.4
2012 18 18 94.0 5.40 23.0% 58.6% 11.2 1.4 1.9 2.0

Cook actually gained a couple of ticks on his sinkerball velocity from his 2011 season, and he used the pitch almost exclusively, tossing it 73 percent of the time. The only other pitch in his repertoire to crack the 10-percent plateau was his cutter, which was used 14 percent of the time.

Over the last few years, Cook has had some bad luck with freak injuries, including a broken leg and fractured fingers, but he can still be a useful pitcher. Aside from his historically-bad strikeout rate, Cook brings one other unique quality to the table: experience pitching well in Coors Field.

Of O'Dowd's choices, Cook is the only one to have ever called Colorado home, and he has succeeded there. Returning to the National League and to a comfortable environment could work out well for the Rockies, and though Cook might also require a major-league deal, he's worth the risk.

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5. The Rebound Option

He once looked like a bright cog in the Braves' rotation, but Jair Jurrjens was spectacularly bad when he took to the mound in 2012, causing Atlanta to option him to the minor leagues to work through his troubles.

Jurrjens has lost more than 2.5 mph on his fastball since 2010 and has seen his strikeout rate and ability to keep the ball on the ground erode:

Year G GS IP FIP FB% GB% H/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9
2009 34 34 215.0 3.64 39.1% 42.9% 7.8 0.6 6.4 3.1
2010 20 20 116.1 4.22 41.9% 39.9% 9.3 1.0 6.7 3.2
2011 23 23 152.0 3.95 36.6% 42.0% 8.4 0.8 5.3 2.6
2012 11 10 48.1 5.68 39.2% 38.7% 13.4 1.5 3.5 3.4

The uptick in fly balls and drop in whiffs is cause for concern, particularly when looking for a pitcher who'll be walking into an environment prone to putting balls in the stratosphere. The 26-year-old Jurrjens has been plagued by right-knee injuries, which also doesn't bode well for his future. O'Dowd would do well to steer clear here.

Colorado's rotation options don't look brilliant, but there are reasons to believe that guys like Lowe and Cook could do well at Coors. If O'Dowd is only able to sign one of these options, he might do best to check in on Lowe, who could be an effective innings-eater and mentor to a young staff.

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