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Pirates opponent preview: Colorado Rockies

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates have just four series remaining in the regular season, and the first of those is a four-game set in Denver. The Cardinals, meanwhile, will play three against the Reds, while the Cubs have three against the Brewers. The Bucs will send A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke to the mound in Colorado to face Jon Gray, Chris Rusin, Jorge De La Rosa and Chad Bettis, respectively. Here's what to expect from the 63-84 Rockies.

PITCHING: 5.00 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 4.34 xFIP. 6.3 fWAR, 14th in the National League. Coors Field remains a force to be reckoned with -- the Rockies have a 5.58 ERA at home this season. The real problem for them, though, is a lack of talent. Their 4.40 road ERA is fourth-worst in the NL. No one on their staff has pitched more than 149 innings this year. No one has produced more than 1.8 fWAR.

Some of that is Coors Field, but some of it isn't. Finding pitchers who can succeed at altitude can't be easy, and getting them to come to Colorado is probably even harder, but it's likely that much of the problem is that the Rockies just aren't identifying the right guys.

Take Eddie Butler, who isn't currently on the active roster but who pitched 79 1/3 big-league innings this year. Butler headed into the season with high expectations. Last October, the Denver Post, in consultation with the Rockies' player-development staff, listed him as the team's third-best prospect, behind former first-round picks David Dahl and Jon Gray.

Based on Butler's actual performance in the minors last year, though, I can't see much justification for having called him a top prospect. A player with potential? Sure, depending on how he looked -- there's more to a prospect than his stat line. But a player whose performances are mediocre in the high minors is usually a poor bet to succeed in the majors, at least in the short term. Butler struck out 5.3 batters per nine innings as a 23-year-old in Double-A in 2014. Statistically, he had a significantly worse 2014 season than 23-year-old Pirates fringe prospect Chad Kuhl had this year. But that didn't stop the Rockies from promoting Butler to the big leagues at the end of last season and then having him start this one in the rotation.

"Honestly, I was the guy who pushed for Eddie Butler to come up last year," GM Jeff Bridich told the Post in July. "I felt like he was ready. In hindsight, maybe not the best recommendation in the world. It didn't go so well. He probably wasn't ready. But at the time, I felt he did enough to make that jump."

Kudos to Bridich for holding himself accountable, but I don't know what he was thinking when he promoted Butler. For Butler to go almost straight from treading water at Double-A to pitching at altitude in the big leagues is way too ambitious, and it's no surprise that Butler bombed this year, posting a 5.90 ERA in the majors and walking nearly as many batters as he struck out.

It should be noted that Butler is a ground-ball pitcher. As Pirates fans, we've seen the good ground balls can do, and they're even more important in Coors. It's no accident that the Rockies rank fifth in the majors in ground-ball rate. But a pitcher can't really survive purely on ground balls, not even with Nolan Arenado and the now-departed Troy Tulowitzki behind him, and many of the Rockies' pitchers induce ground balls and don't do much else. (And then there's Kyle Kendrick, who doesn't even have ground balls going for him.)

Anyway, of the pitchers the Pirates will face this week, De La Rosa is the best of the lot, and Rusin and Bettis are random back-of-the-rotation ground-ball guys. De La Rosa and Rusin are lefties, so expect the Pirates to mix up their lineups this series.

Gray will be interesting to watch -- the third overall pick in the 2013 draft has a big arm and will be making his ninth big-league start. Gray, by the way, was widely considered to be one of the best two talents available in 2013, along with Mark Appel. The Cubs ended up taking Kris Bryant instead of Gray with the No. 2 pick, which is too bad, not only because it would have been great to keep Bryant out of the NL Central but because Bryant in Coors Field would have been ridiculous.

The Rockies' bullpen has John Axford as its closer, which tells you a lot of what you need to know. It doesn't feature anyone too scary, although one guy I'd like to get a look at is Justin Miller, a 28-year-old journeyman who's gotten a big velocity bump this year.

OFFENSE: .264/.315/.431. 7.9 fWAR, 14th in the National League. It's weird to see that respectable-looking slash line for a team that's near the bottom in WAR, especially given that the Rockies are slightly above average defensively, but that's Colorado for you.

Arenado is a beast, although actually mostly because of his defense. He's hit 39 homers this year, but lots of home runs are par for the Coors, and he doesn't walk enough; he's a good hitter, but not a great one. Carlos Gonzalez falls into the same category at this point in his career. The Rockies have gotten solid performances from DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon and the now-injured Nick Hundley this season, but many of their other position players have been replacement level or worse, including Jose Reyes, old friend Justin Morneau and most of their bench. Key infield backup Daniel Descalso's -0.8 fWAR this season drops his career total to a crisp -0.3; he must be a great clubhouse guy. And then there's whatever 1B/C/headache Wilin Rosario is supposed to be.

Because of Coors Field, you can look at many of these guys' numbers and they seem fine. But the Rockies' hitters rarely walk; they strike out a fair amount, even though Coors Field is supposed to suppress strikeouts; and their .650 road OPS is worst in the big leagues.

OVERVIEW: It's tempting to call the Rockies a rebuilding team, but they're now in their fifth straight losing season. There wasn't much built there in the first place. They finally appear to be getting restless -- they've traded Tulowitzki, and manager Walt Weiss might not be back next season.

As I mentioned last week, it's no longer common for teams to have decade-long streaks of losing seasons, but if you could see it happening anywhere, it would be Colorado. The altitude in Denver places the Rockies at a big competitive disadvantage, and I'm not sure that's avoidable.

It's tough to build a pitching staff in Colorado, not only because no pitcher wants to come there, but because more pitchers have to handle the work. The Rockies' starters have pitched easily the fewest innings in baseball this season, which means weaker pitchers have to pitch more innings. The Rockies have used 23 relievers this year. Even if they might not have used a few of those pitchers if they were competitive, that's a lot. By comparison, the Pirates have used 14.

Hitting as a Rockie actually probably isn't a picnic either. It's surely easier than pitching, and it's fairly easy to produce sexy statistics. But it probably isn't easy to produce the big numbers necessary to actually help your team win. Hitting while traveling in and out of Denver presents unique challenges, like the fact that breaking balls break more on the road than they do at home. That's got to be tough to adjust to.

"It's going to be tough to ever perform well on the road for Colorado," former Rockies slugger Dante Bichette told the Post in 2012. "You are going to be less than average on the road because of the way the ball breaks. That's why you have to hammer people at home."

While Coors Field presents obvious problems for the Rockies, though, they should be doing better. They rarely act decisively to buy or sell. Rarely is anyone all that excited about their farm system. In their 23 years in the big leagues, they've had their fair share of great players (Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Tulowitzki), and of course, they went to the World Series in 2007. But for the most part, the Rockies merely blend in. The altitude is a big problem for them, but they need to be more aggressive in acquiring young talent, and they need to do a better job identifying it.

Maybe they've finally reached a turning point. This year, they took Brendan Rodgers early in the draft, and he joined Gray, Dahl and third baseman Ryan McMahon as strong talents in the Rockies' farm system. Then they grabbed three more young arms (Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco) when they traded Tulowitzki to Toronto. Maybe the Rockies' current group of young players represents the core of their next contending team. Unfortunately for fans in Denver, the organization has all kinds of hurdles to clear before they find out.