Colorado Rockies 2017 season preview: The pieces are in place to surprise us all

The Colorado Rockies had an interesting offseason, thanks in part to a curious free-agent signing that still defies obvious explanation. But a sneakily interesting rotation (no, really), a surprisingly pricey bullpen, young talent on the way to the majors and an NL Manager of the Year candidate makes the Rockies a team to watch heading into 2017.

Let’s take a closer look at the boys in purple.

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Nolan Arenado is one of the best players in baseball.  USATSI

The vitals

The Ian Desmond signing is still weird

The Rockies’ biggest move of the offseason was handing $70 million to Ian Desmond to play first base. What seemed odd then remains odd now, seeing as how the cold-corner market was flush and Desmond had played shortstop and center field over the past two seasons. We all figured a trade -- likely of Carlos Gonzalez or Charlie Blackmon -- was coming soon. Yet, weeks from the start of the regular season, it appears Desmond will be the most athletic, out-of-place first baseman since Darin Erstad.

Assuming Desmond takes to the defensive rigors of first base just fine, the question will be how much he hits. Though he finished last season with a 104 OPS+, a poor second half saw his overall OPS dip from .899 to .782. When right, Desmond pitches in with a little of everything -- a good average, some walks and 20-20 homer-steal potential. That isn’t the typical first-base profile, but the Rockies are better equipped than most to tolerate that from the cold corner.

That’s because they feature offensive talent most everywhere else on the diamond: Third baseman Nolan Arenado is one of the best players in baseball; double-play combination Trevor Story (power) and DJ LeMahieu (average) contribute in their ways; and the outfield features Blackmon (a legit leadoff type), Gonzalez (still an above-average batter) and David Dahl, who looked golden during his 63-game cameo. There’s even offensive potential behind the plate, should Tom Murphy’s hit tool translate enough for him to overtake top framer Tony Wolters.

In short, Desmond at first base or not, the Rockies have the potential for a deep, high-quality lineup that scores a ton of runs.

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Jon Gray was one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball in 2016. USATSI

The rotation is intriguing

Not a typo. The Rockies -- the franchise that counts Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Steve Reed as its five best starters -- have a rotation comprised of five pitchers who could conceivably finish with an ERA+ of 100 or better. Colorado has had only one season in which five pitchers with more than 100 innings pulled that off -- in 2009, or the last time the Rockies made the playoffs.

Just who are these guys who could make the Rockies’ rotation a strength? Let’s introduce them, bit by bit.

Leading the pack is Jon Gray, a physical right-hander with an upper-90s fastball, a luscious mane and a hard slider that generated a whiff on more than 40 percent of the swings against it in 2016. He’s best known for two things: First, striking out 16 San Diego Padres in a complete game last September; second, continuing the afterlife research begun by noble luminaries like William Crookes and Camille Flammarion. Gray has the stuff to be a front-of-the-rotation starter for a long time.

Gray was not the most successful starter on the 2016 Rockies -- nor was he the most successful rookie starter. Both distinctions go to Tyler Anderson, a southpaw whose 3.54 strikeout-to-walk rate and 138 ERA+ were tops among Colorado pitchers with more than 30 innings. The 20th pick in 2011, Anderson took a while to reach the majors due to various maladies (to wit, his 144 total innings in ‘16 set a new career high). Anderson has a solid three-pitch mix and a hitchy, deceptive delivery that might remind you of the aforementioned Jimenez, but that will definitely shield the ball from the batter until late in the process.

Celebrity deaths supposedly come in threes; talented young starters seldom do. Yet Jeff Hoffman, the jewel of the Troy Tulowitzki payout, gives the Rockies a third intriguing young starter. Hoffman combines a lively mid-90s fastball with a pair of impressive, if inconsistent breaking balls. His command and changeup need further refinement if he’s to become more than a teasing mid-rotation starter. But that’s to be expected, given he has fewer than 50 professional starts to his credit.

Colorado’s rotation will also house two boring, groundball-lovin’ veteran types. Chad Bettis has pieced together consecutive respectable seasons since leaving the bullpen, while Tyler Chatwood is nearing “New Aaron Cook” status -- his 1.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio in more than 350 innings with the Rockies has not kept him from posting a 3.97 ERA. No one is tuning in to watch either, but they beat the flotsam typically associated with the back of the Rockies rotation.

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A full season from Adam Ottavino could help the league’s worst bullpen. USATSI

Colorado’s bullpen must provide bang for the buck

Add the offense and rotation’s potential together, and you can see why the Rockies will be a popular dark-horse pick for a spot in the NL Wild Card Game. For that to come to fruition, the Rockies will have to get better relief pitching.

The Rockies’ bullpen finished at the bottom of the league in 2016 in both unit ERA and DRA. That fact likely precipitated this one: Colorado will pay more than $25 million combined this season to Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee, Jason Motte, Greg Holland, Chad Qualls and Mike Dunn.

How much improvement can be expected? Hard to say. A full season from Ottavino -- a proven asset in Coors Field -- should help matters. You figure McGee, who entered last season as one of the best southpaws in the game, will do better in his second spin ‘round the sun in Rockies pinstripes.

After that? Who knows.

Dunn, Qualls and Motte looked like questionable investments before their contracts were shredded on Twitter. Holland, an All-Star closer during his previous life in Kansas City, meanwhile, is a wild card as he returns from Tommy John surgery. Ditto for Jairo Diaz, a young flamethrower who could slot in come May.

The Rockies probably won’t have the majors’ worst bullpen in 2017, and the best-case scenario is probably an effective endgame trio with shaky mid-relief work. We’ll see if that’s enough.

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Raimel Tapia is waiting in the wings. USATSI

There’s more young talent coming

If the Rockies do contend in 2017, their farm system will be largely responsible for the turnaround -- recent newcomers like Dahl, Story, Murphy, Gray and Anderson were all developed in-house. Colorado’s pipeline has more to offer, too.

The Rockies have five players who earned a spot on at least one of the top-100 lists produced by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com: shortstop Brendan Rodgers, outfielder Raimel Tapia and pitchers Hoffman, Riley Pint and German Marquez. Rodgers and Pint are a ways off, but Hoffman, Marquez and Tapia each debuted in 2016.

Southpaw Kyle Freeland and third baseman Ryan McMahon could make for interesting trade pieces should the Rockies go shopping at the deadline.

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Bud Black will be wearing a different uniform this season. USATSI

Bud Black could be the NL Manager of the Year

There were only three managerial changes this offseason: Colorado hiring Black, the Chicago White Sox promoting Rick Renteria to replace Robin Ventura and the Arizona Diamondbacks tabbing Torey Lovullo as the immediate face of the Mike Hazen era. Of those, Black’s appointment should pay dividends the soonest.

Formerly the San Diego Padres skipper, Black spent last season in the Los Angeles Angels front office after failing to come to terms with the Washington Nationals. His top attributes are his willingness to embrace modern strategies and his California-cool demeanor, which helps him relate to players and maintain a laid-back clubhouse.

While the “Bud” portion of Black’s name appears apt, his surname is a misnomer as it pertains to his results. He finished his eight-plus seasons in San Diego in the red with a .477 winning percentage. Even so, it’s hard to call Black overrated when you consider the lean Padres rosters he oversaw. How many managers would’ve gotten more from those clubs -- maybe a handful, at most? How many would’ve gotten less from those clubs -- half the league, at least?

No matter how you grade Black, the Manager of the Year Award is often presented to the skipper behind the league’s most surprising team. For the aforementioned reasons, the Rockies could well be that team. As such, Black could bring home his second Manager of the Year Award.

Probable lineup

  1. Charlie Blackmon, CF
  2. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  3. Nolan Arenado, 3B
  4. Carlos Gonzalez, RF
  5. Ian Desmond, 1B
  6. David Dahl, LF
  7. Trevor Story, SS
  8. Tony Wolters, C

Bench: Tom Murphy, C; Gerardo Parra, OF; Mark Reynolds, 1B; Alexi Amarista, UTL

Probable rotation

  1. Jon Gray (R)
  2. Chad Bettis (R)
  3. Tyler Anderson (L)
  4. Tyler Chatwood (R)
  5. Jeff Hoffman (R)

Probable bullpen

Adam Ottavino figures to get the ninth-inning nod, while Jake McGee and Greg Holland serve as the main setup options. Mike Dunn, Chad Qualls and Jason Motte figure to slot into the middle innings. Jordan Lyles should serve as the long man.

SportsLine projection: 78-84, third place in the NL West

CBS Sports Staff

R.J. Anderson joined CBS Sports in 2016. He previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to five of the New York Times bestselling annuals. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and... Full Bio

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