Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Rockies, Yearning for Depth, Ink Four To Minors Deals

Coming off the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Colorado has inked four minor league signings to kick off the winter.

Officially, pitchers Dereck Rodriguez, Brian Gonzalez, and Ian Clarkin along with infielder/outfielder Connor Joe have all put pen to paper to join the Rockies’ organization. They will attempt to earn an Opening Day roster spot come Spring Training.

The Rockies finished last season with a franchise-worst bullpen ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Expected FIP (xFIP), Skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), and HR/9. Their strikeout rate was a franchise low since 2015. Notably, the Rockies finished with just one lefty, Phillip Diehl, in their 2020 bullpen. Thus, Gonzalez and Clarkin, both lefties, are very welcomed additions.

As for the offense, the Rockies ranked 3rd to last in fWAR and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), only ahead of the Rangers and Pirates. They were just a hair ahead of the league-worst Tigers in BB% and K/BB. The Rockies never had real postseason hopes with how impotent their lineup was. However, their struggles were unusually drastic in 2020. Evidenced by a franchise-worst wRC+, OPS, and the previously mentioned walks per strikeout ratio, a clear case can be made this was the worst offense in club history.

Following last season’s reclamation of NL Comeback Player of the Year, Daniel Bard, the club is digging deeper than major league free agents to find another contributor. However, it’s always worth noting that a bad minor league deal does not exist.

Starting with Dereck Rodriguez, the righty figures to pitch in relief, but after making 35 starts with the Giants over 2018 and 2019, the former 6th round pick can’t be ruled out for the 5th spot in the rotation, a roster spot plagued by unproductivity last season.

Rodriguez, a standout rookie in 2018, accumulated 1.8 fWAR and posted a 2.81 ERA in 118.1 innings, although the peripherals were less kind. A 3.74 FIP, 4.56 xFIP, and 4.58 SIERA show Rodriguez was on the luckier side of things in terms of quality of contact and that the 0.68 home runs per 9 he surrendered was unsustainable.

2019 and 2020 saw a regression back to the mean and more for Rodriguez, indicated by a 5.94 ERA, 5.89 FIP, and 5.32 xFIP. Rodriguez, who had a stingily low walk rate in 2018 of 2.74 per 9, saw that number inflate to 3.41 per 9 in 2019 and 2020. For a pitcher who sits in the low 90s with his fastball and only averages 6.59 strikeouts per 9 innings, this spelled doom. A 40% career ground ball rate could survive at Coors Field, but the former Giant will need to see that number tick closer to 50% to see consistent success at mile-high Coors Field.

Rodriguez only appeared out of the pen in 2020. Though in just 4 innings, Rodriguez saw his fastball velocity jump 2 mph from 2019 and his fastball spin rate jump almost 300 rpm to 2326, which is well above average. Along with the fastball, Rodriguez primarily features a curveball, which has often been his best pitch, and a cutter. With continued refinement into a reliever, Rodriguez could earn the 8th spot in the Rockies bullpen and serve as a swingman.

Brian Gonzalez, previously in the Orioles system, was converted to a full-time reliever in 2019. Gonzalez exclusively served as a starter since being selected in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft by Baltimore. The 25-year-old lefty saw mixed results. A decent 4.32 ERA over 41.1 innings in AA was aided by a .209 BABIP and simultaneously hurt by a 15.3 HR/FB%. As a result, a huge disparity resulted between his FIP and xFIP at 5.16 and 3.74, respectively. Throughout his 6-year minor league career, Gonzalez has struck out 478 hitters and walked 252 (1.9 K/BB) in 578 innings.

There isn’t much of a report on Gonzalez, recently, but he features a fastball, curveball, and changeup. He sits in the low-mid 90s with his fastball and features the changeup as his most effective pitch. For Gonzalez to find success with the Rockies, he will either need to cut his aforementioned HR/FB% or raise his ground ball rate from the mid 30% average the former Oriole has pitched to since 2018.

Drafted 33rd overall in the 2013 amateur draft by the Yankees, Ian Clarkin, still just 25, has the pedigree to be a quality MLB pitcher. Clarkin was drafted with mid-90s velocity but since missing much of 2014, all of 2015, and part of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Clarkin has lost a few ticks on his fastball. The former 1st rounder was traded to the White Sox in 2017, then made his way to the northside, joining the Cubs in 2019. There, he pitched 13.1 subpar innings at AA, walking 9 while striking out just 5.

In 2018, Clarkin showed similar command and control issues, walking 34 to just 41 strikeouts over 76.1 innings. Clarkin hasn’t managed to excel against AA pitching and 2021 poses big test for his career. When Clarkin’s stuff is sharp, his curveball and changeup can be MLB-quality pitches, with Kiley McDaniel grading them, in 2018, at 60 and 50, respectively. Clarkin’s career appears to have stalled, but his high ground ball and low home run rates bode well for a Colorado pitcher. He slots behind Gonzalez on the lefty relief depth chart, with a longer shot to make the 40-man roster.

Finally, corner-infielder/outfielder Connor Joe joins the organization as the lone offensive addition thus far. The 28-year-old played with the Giants and Dodgers in 2019. Prior to 2020 Spring Training, Joe was diagnosed with testicular cancer, holding him out of action last year. Fortunately, he was declared cancer-free on July 20th and now looks to revitalize a career that has flashed promise. In 2019, Joe hit 15 homers and walked a stellar 16.1% of the time, while striking out in just 18.2% of his 446 AAA PAs. Although it was in the hitter’s haven Pacific Coast League, a .426 OBP and 132 wRC+ indicate a major league caliber skillset. 2019 also saw Joe make his MLB debut, although it was just 16 PAs with the Giants. He did record his first hit.

Defensively, Joe has primarily served as a first baseman, with over 2,000 minor league innings there. With over 1,200 innings at third base and 473 innings between left and right field, Joe offers defensive versatility. He doesn’t offer much with his legs and doesn’t cover a lot of ground in the outfield, but Joe’s arm grades out well.

Of these signings, Joe is the most likely to earn a 40-man spot and receive playing time in 2021. The Rockies have a lot of organizational depth at the corner infield positions, however, outfield depth is thin, leaving an opportunity open for the taking as a bench bat and extra outfielder. The advanced approach Connor Joe has demonstrated in the minors appeals to the Rockies, who desperately need to improve their overall plate discipline.

Expectations for minor league deals are inherently tapered, and there’s no reason for that to be different with these signings; however, the former Giants big leaguers, Rodriguez and Joe, present legitimate depth to a roster that has been handicapped by the bottom half of their roster in recent seasons. Meanwhile, the left-handed duo also fills a huge organizational need.

The Rockies roster has a ways to go, though these moves, along with their trade with Cincinnati, yield necessary progress.

Tyler Paddor

A proponent of prospect analysis and endurer of Rockies idiocy. Twitter: @RoxDontRake