Trade before Meetings tips Rockies' hand on pitching

December 5th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- During a TV interview on Monday at the MLB Winter Meetings, Rockies general manager Bill Schmidt and onetime Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd had an exchange of men who understand the pain of putting together a pitching staff at altitude.

O’Dowd became GM after the 1999 season and hired Schmidt as scouting director, so they lived the ill-fated signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle for a combined $172 million at the 2000 Winter Meetings. The problem of building a rotation for Coors Field endures going into 2024, even after Schmidt acquired right-hander Cal Quantrill from the Guardians last month. But the lesson of ‘00 resonates.

Schmidt: “We’re not going to be the first choice in the free agent market, unless we way overpay. And we’ve been down the free agent market before."

O’Dowd: “Yeah, we have.”

Schmidt: “That didn’t work out real good.”

O’Dowd: “That’s true.”

Schmidt’s words were delivered with a bemused chuckle. O’Dowd spoke like a man reminded of a nightmare. Nonetheless, the route from the worst record in club history (59-103 in 2023) to relevance in the standings sooner than later has to be paved with better pitching. Schmidt has addressed quantity, by adding 37 pitchers over the past 18 months through the MLB Draft and trades. 

But all those picks and acquisitions don’t address an immediate need. Former All-Star Germán Márquez is not expected back from Tommy John surgery until after the 2024 All-Star break, and Schmidt is uncertain whether Antonio Senzatela will make it back in ’24 from his Tommy John procedure.

The rotation currently consists of lefties Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber, who have had high moments with the Rockies, and righties Quantrill, Peter Lambert and Ryan Feltner. To improve, the Rockies must be prepared for any chance to make an acquisition.

Quantrill went 15-5 with a 3.38 ERA in 2022 but fell to 4-7 with a 5.24 last season.

“When opportunities came, we were prepared to make a decision. And that can happen at any time,” Schmidt said. “In Cleveland’s case, they made a decision on Quantrill. They got Scott Barlow [in a trade with the Padres], and basically flipped out Quantrill for Barlow. So that worked out well for us.”

Why do the Rockies believe Quantrill, who dealt with right shoulder issues for much of ‘23 but finished strong, can succeed at altitude? It’s a good indication of what the club is seeking in future pitching moves.

“He’s a pitcher’s pitcher -- four pitches,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He pitches with his fastball to both sides. He’s got a little cutter-slider that he’s able to manipulate the break and the velocity -- true pitching. A catcher puts down a sign, and he decides, ‘Do I want to make this an 80 mph breaking ball or do I want to make this an 86 mph cutter-slider?’ I like that part, based on the hitter, the count and the moment. He’s got a good changeup, a split-change.

“It’s an array of weapons with pitchability.”

Schmidt said, “First and foremost, he throws strikes and he’s not afraid. There’s a mental toughness to him.”

Reinforcements from the left
The waiver claim of from the Rays last month has helped a Rockies bullpen that has been light on left-handed options in recent seasons.

“Some experience there -- five years of service -- and he’s pitched in the heat of pennant races,” Black said. “Stuff-wise, good velocity to the fastball. His type of fastball plays up in the zone, but he also can get it down and he’s got a good changeup.”

With lefty Lucas Gilbreath expected to return after missing 2023 because of Tommy John surgery, Black feels better strategically. The Rockies will continue developing Evan Justice, a fifth-round Draft pick in 2021 who made just 41 Minor League appearances before debuting in the Majors last season. The Rockies are also monitoring the market for their main lefty last year -- Brent Suter, who became a free agent after making 57 appearances for Colorado last season.

One Hall of Fame to (possibly) another
Former manager Jim Leyland, voted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, will be the second person to have worn a Rockies uniform to be elected to Cooperstown. Leyland managed the team during a mostly forgettable 1999 season. Larry Walker is the only honored player to have appeared in a game for the Rockies. Star first baseman fell 11 votes shy last year, but stands a strong chance of being elected this year.

Leyland said Helton’s was one of 294 congratulatory texts he received.

“I texted with Todd this morning, and my message was, 'I hope we go in together,’" Leyland said. "He was a great, great player, and he hit the ball to all fields. He hit with power. He was a great defensive first baseman. I hope it works out for him."