This is part of an occasional series comprising MLB season previews.
The Colorado Rockies went 75-87 last year, and if you asked someone who didn’t watch a single game to describe the particulars of the season, they’d probably say something like, “Well, they scored a lot of runs, pitched pretty terribly, and struggled with injuries,” because that’s basically how every Rockies season goes. That’s pretty much how last year went.
For the sad sacks who invest their time in Rockies baseball, however, last year’s losing campaign felt like a momentum swing in the right direction. Trevor Story seized control of the Tulo-sized hole at shortstop and smacked some monster dongs before going down with an injury, big Jon Gray established himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter, David Dahl finally made his way to the big leagues and raked, Nolan Arenado continued to play like an MVP candidate, and the lineup solidified itself as one of the most dangerous in baseball. The bullpen routinely shit its collective pants, but whatever, the vibes were generally good.
Going into the offseason, the Rockies front office put a lot of faith in the momentum generated by last year’s squad. They shelled out five years and $70 million for Ian Desmond, tried to fix up the terrible bullpen by throwing money at Greg Holland and Mike Dunn, and didn’t trade Carlos González.
These are the kinds of moves a team makes when it believes it can make the jump from also-ran to playoff contender in one season. Unfortunately for the Rockies, recent history has not been very kind to teams coming off such bullish offseasons. Remember when people were high on the Diamondbacks’ chances in 2016 and impressed by the Padres’ offseason moves in 2015? How’d that work out for those teams?
Holland is a monster when healthy and should do a lot to improve the bullpen. But he’s just one guy, and Mike Dunn is pretty pedestrian, so Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee, Jason Motte, and Carlos Estevez are really going to need to get their shit together if the pen is going to be anything other than a disaster.
There are plenty of reasons to make fun of the Rockies for giving $70 million to Desmond. (He’s a 31-year-old whose value is largely derived from his ability to play two premium defensive positions, and they’re asking him to plant himself at first base.) Would Mark Trumbo for $37.5 million over three years, or Chris Carter for $3.5 million over one year (God, how did that happen???) have made more sense? Probably, but even if the money’s not right, it’s hard to be mad at the Rockies for filling the biggest hole in their lineup with a guy who hit .285/.335/.446 with 22 homers and 29 doubles last season. Plus, Desmond’s positional versatility is a good thing to have around when the injury bug starts biting.
Speaking of injuries, Desmond broke his hand a last week and just had surgery to repair it. He’ll be out for a few weeks to start the season, and Mark Reynolds will play first in the meantime. Shit.
The most obvious choice here is third baseman Nolan Arenado, but now that he’s turned in back-to-back 40-dinger seasons while playing excellent defense, I don’t think anyone needs to be told that Arenado is worth paying attention to. He’s gonna hit the seams off the ball, routinely turn down-the-line doubles into outs, and continue to be the best reason to tune into a Rockies game, should that be something you feel like doing.
The real guys to know, the ones who will likely determine whether the Rockies are on the verge of a 77-win season or something greater, are a few young pitchers who might have what it takes to post a sub-4.00 ERA while pitching half their games at altitude.
Jon Gray is the biggest name here. Last year was the 24-year-old’s first full season in the bigs, and it went just about as well as anyone could have expected. Gray, who can throw in the high 90s and has a vicious wipeout slider, struck out 185 batters in 168 innings and finished with a 106 ERA+. Going by FIP, Gray’s 2016 campaign was the fourth-best season by any pitcher (minimum 150 innings) in Rockies history, according to Baseball Reference. That is simultaneously grim and encouraging.
Behind Gray is Tyler Anderson, a big ol’ lefty with a herky, Kershaw-style delivery who exceeded expectations last season, also his first in the big leagues. Anderson didn’t put up the innings (114) or strikeout (99) numbers that Gray did, but his overall body of work was perhaps more impressive. He put up 3.5 rWAR in just 19 starts, and actually pitched much better at home than he did on the road. He’s not a flamethrower, but his four seamer, cutter, and sinker kept him from dying in the thin air.
Things get interesting behind Gray, Anderson, and Tyler Chatwood, who is a perfectly solid pitcher I unfortunately don’t have much to say about. With Chad Bettis out indefinitely due to the return of his cancer, there’s a good chance the Rockies will break camp with two rookies in the rotation in Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez.
Hoffman was the prize of the Troy Tulowitzki trade, and Marquez came from Tampa Bay in exchange for Corey Dickerson. Marquez’s promise rests with his ability to throw hard and limit walks; Hoffman’s promise lies with his ability to throw really fucking hard and get enough strikeouts to offset his control problems. Neither is a can’t-miss prospect, and the desiccated husks of once-heralded pitching prospects that litter Blake Street should give anyone pause.
But the arrivals of Gray, Marquez, Anderson, and Hoffman are the result of a recent philosophical shift in player development. Whereas the Rockies once worshipped pitching prospects whose primary skill was pitching to contact and praying for a ground ball, they’re now valuing guys who can throw hard and sit hitters down. Who knows if this will work, but the early returns from Gray and Anderson are promising.
One last guy to know, if you want to sound like a super smart baseball nerd in front of all your moron friends, is catcher Tony Wolters. Why should you know a catcher who hit .259 with three homers last year? Because he’s one of the best pitch-framers in the league, and appreciating good pitch-framing is the hot new thing.
Charlie Blackmon. My dude has a dang wombat on his face.
If the Rockies are really going to Do It this year, it will be because the offense maintains its status as one of the best in the league, Gray and Anderson improve, and one of—or both—Marquez and Hoffman have a breakout rookie season. That’s a lot to ask for, but going from 78 wins to the playoffs doesn’t come easy.
Because if everything does come together like the Rockies hope it will, this will be a great bandwagon team. A lineup full of tater-mashing studs and a rotation comprised of young, hard-throwing cocks is exactly the kind of team that’s fun to adopt for a season. Rockies fans tend to be pretty chill, too, so nobody is gonna hassle you for jumping on the wagon.