Examining the team's MLB season ahead.
The Rockies are in a win-now mode, a bold organizational mindset considering the recent past. They have endured a franchise-record-tying six straight losing seasons and have averaged 92 losses a year during that dismal stretch. After a seven-game improvement to 75 wins in 2016, the Rockies aren’t merely eyeing a similar increase. They are aiming for a bigger leap that would vault them into contention under new manager Bud Black, who will bring a pitcher’s perspective to managing at Coors Field.
The reasons for the Rockies’ optimism go far beyond Black. They addressed glaring needs by signing free agents Ian Desmond to play first base and Mike Dunn and Greg Holland to improve the bullpen. Desmond will strengthen an already potent lineup that includes a host of productive players in their primes. As usual, though, pitching will determine their fate.
Jon Gray, Chad Bettis, lefthander Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood went a combined 41–33 last year on a sub-.500 team and are expected to comprise the heart of the rotation. Gray has a mid-90s fastball, a wipeout slider, a good changeup and a curveball that became a weapon in the second half of last season. Bettis is recovering from surgery in late November for testicular cancer but is expected to be ready for spring training. He’ll be trying to build on a season in which he set career highs for wins (14), innings (186), starts (32) and strikeouts (138). Anderson, who made his major-league debut in June, has poise beyond his years and a low-90s fastball made more effective by an outstanding changeup. Anderson averaged just 2.2 walks per nine innings. Chatwood’s command can be spotty, but he has a knack for getting ground balls and is a solid back-of-the-rotation starter. Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez are candidates for the final spot after making their big-league debuts last year.
Second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the reigning National League batting champion, has quietly turned into a complete player. He has won a Gold Glove and along with shortstop Trevor Story gives the Rockies superb defense up the middle. Story showed remarkable poise, confidence and presence during a memorable rookie season when he established himself as a franchise cornerstone. Story led all MLB rookies with 27 homers and tied for the lead with 72 RBIs despite being limited to 97 games by a season-ending thumb injury in late July.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado is one of the elite players in the game. He is a perennial Gold Glove winner whose defense produces jaw-dropping highlights daily. Arenado is the first NL player to lead the league in home runs (he has tied for the NL lead in each of the last two years) and RBIs in consecutive seasons since Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. Desmond has never played first base, but after he made the switch last year from shortstop to left field and then center field, the Rockies are confident he will make a smooth transition to yet another new position. He strikes out frequently but should produce 30 doubles, 25 homers and 20 stolen bases.
This is a very strong group, albeit one in which the three starters and primary reserve all bat left-handed. Center fielder Charlie Blackmon provides unusual power from the leadoff spot and had an average of .324 and a .933 OPS. David Dahl is a true center fielder but will play left field because of Blackmon’s presence. Dahl plays with a confidence and composure that is rare for an inexperienced major leaguer. Healthy for the second straight season, right fielder Carlos Gonzalez played 150 games and was very productive, hitting at least 25 home runs for the fifth time with the Rockies and driving in 100 runs for the first time since 2010.
With free agent Nick Hundley gone, the Rockies will rely on Tom Murphy and Tony Wolters. The latter was claimed on waivers from Cleveland in spring training last year and served as Hundley’s backup. Wolters is an exceptional receiver with fluid moves behind the plate, a strong arm and soft hands that enable him to frame pitches well. His offense improved during his rookie season, and in the second half he hit .321 with an .862 OPS. Murphy, who has played with the Rockies toward the end of the past two seasons, has exceptional power and above-average arm strength.
When Wolters catches, Murphy, a right-handed hitter, gives the Rockies a power-hitting threat off the bench that they otherwise lack. The left-handed-hitting Wolters is extremely versatile. He began his career as a middle infielder and has shown he can play shortstop and second base when needed, a huge plus late in games. Gerardo Parra became a fourth outfielder last year with the emergence of Dahl and began playing first base to increase his value. He’s much better in the outfield but gives the Rockies a left-handed-hitting alternative at first to Desmond. Alexi Amarista can play three infield positions and has extensive outfield experience and enough speed to play center field and come off the bench and run.
General manager Jeff Bridich inherited manager Walt Weiss, who was at the Rockies’ helm four seasons. They were together for two seasons but never forged a good working relationship. With his contract concluded and his firing imminent, Weiss resigned after the 2016 season ended. Hiring the experienced Black was a coup for Bridich. He and Black communicate often and well. Owner Dick Monfort has given Bridich authority to make major moves.
Being in contention is realistic if the young rotation continues to improve and the bullpen, unlike last year, becomes an asset. And the bullpen should be better with the addition of Dunn and the return of Diaz as well as young pitching prospects like Hoffman, Marquez and Kyle Freeland, who could be moved temporarily to the bullpen to fortify that area.