Colorado Rockies 2019 season preview: Can Nolan Arenado lead a retooled lineup to another playoff appearance?
The Rockies have designs on another trip to the postseason
The Colorado Rockies are coming off a season in which they tallied 91 wins -- second-most in franchise history -- and forced the Dodgers into a tiebreaker game for the NL West title. They then vanquished the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game and advanced to the NLDS for the first time since 2009. They capped it off this winter by signing franchise third baseman Nolan Arenado . So with baseball enthusiasm brimming in Denver, they've set their sights on making the postseason for a third straight year. Now let's have a closer look at the 2019 Rockies ...
- Charlie Blackmon, RF
- Nolan Arenado, 3B
- Daniel Murphy, 1B
- Trevor Story, SS
- David Dahl, LF
- Ian Desmond, CF
- Ryan McMahon/Garrett Hampson, 2B
- Chris Iannetta, C
Blackmon in decline?
Blackmon's worsening defensive numbers prompted the Rockies to shift him from center field to right. In his place, they've installed 33-year-old Ian Desmond, who played first base last year. The bigger concern, though, may be Blackmon's bat. Blackmon saw histumble from 141 in 2017 to 115 last season. At the same time, Blackmon saw his ground-ball percentage spike, and his quality-of-contact numbers were also disappointing. Specifically on that latter point, Blackmon ranked 165th out of 228 batters with at least 250 batted-ball events last season in average exit velocity, and he ranked 140th in percentage of hard-hit balls.
Blackmon goes into the 2019 season at 32 years of age -- an old 32 in baseball-season terms, what with his July 1 birthday. That's of course an age at which many hitters begin to see decline at the plate. He's locked up through at least 2021, and if he exercises the two player options on his contract (a strong possibility) then he's got about $95 million left on his deal. No doubt, the Rockies are hoping that Blackmon is able to reverse or at least stall the trend that began last season. Whether he's able to will have bearing on the Rockies' fortunes beyond 2019.
Young bats need to step up
The loss of DJ LeMahieu to free agency means that the Rockies will likely open the season with a platoon of Ryan McMahon and Garrett Hampson at second base. The 24-year-old McMahon as the left-handed hitter will be the primary half of that platoon. He's a former second-rounder who put up strong numbers in the minors and was a fixture on overall top-100 lists for three years. Thus far, though, he's failed to produce at the highest level, albeit across a sample of just 226 plate appearances. Hampson, also 24 and a consensus top-100 prospect coming into this season, has put up good numbers across parts of three minor-league seasons and should be ready for the bigs.
Longer term, top prospect Brendan Rodgers -- ranked by MLB.com as the No. 10 overall prospect coming into this season -- is probably the answer at second base. Given that he's a prep draftee who's now 22, he should be ready soon. Rodgers also fared well in Double-A last season and reached Triple-A. If the McMahon/Hampson job-share doesn't yield the desired results early on, then Rodgers may get the call.
Elsewhere, left fielder David Dahl, barring the unexpected, will get his first Opening Day start. Dahl, 24, is a former No. 10 overall pick who was a long-time fixture on top-100 lists. He's produced well (113 OPS+) across two big-league seasons, and the hope is that with full-time duty he'll fare even better. As well, Dahl also figures to be an asset in the field and on the bases.
Whichever young player or pairing of young players who pins down second base and Dahl in left will be vital to the Rockies' success in 2019. They've got the scouting pedigree and the minor-league success, and now it's time to make it happen in the majors.
The Jon Gray question
The current baseball renaissance in Denver owes much to the homegrown pitching -- homegrown pitching being a notion that was mostly foreign to the Rockies until recent times. Gray has been a key part of it, but last season he backslid a bit ...
Gray allowed the most earned runs in the NL last season. Much of the problem stems from the fact that he gave up 27 home runs in 172 1/3 innings -- almost double the rate he gave up home runs in 2018. Framed another way, Gray saw a notable spike in his home runs allowed as a percentage of fly balls allowed. The good news is that's an indicator prone to random variation. Gray also saw an elevated batting average on balls in play and a depressed rate of stranded runners. Those are also prone to random variation. All three worked against him in 2018, and that raises hopes for improvement in 2019.
It's further worth noting that Gray's struggles flowed from his losing command of his slider. An adjusted release point raises hopes that he's fixed that problem. Not so long ago, Gray was Colorado's ace-in-waiting. Maybe he becomes that in 2019.
Last season, Colorado first basemen combined to hit just .232/.314/.405, which is poor production for a bat-first position that calls Coors Field home. That line was chiefly the work of Desmond, who as mentioned has been relocated to center field. In his place will be Daniel Murphy, whom the Rockies signed to a two-year deal this offseason. Murphy should constitute a notable upgrade over what the Rockies got from the position in 2018, and ideally they'll platoon him with Mark Reynolds.
There's also the chance for better production from the outfield. Desmond takes over in center, and Dahl is ready for full-time duty. Out are Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra. Even if Blackmon endures continued decline, a Blackmon-Desmond-Dahl alignment is likely better than what was in place last season.
The schedule could help
As you would expect, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) heavily favors the Dodgers in the NL West, as it gives them a 94.4 percent chance of winning the division for a seventh straight season. The Rox, meantime, are in second place but all the way back at 80 projected wins. While the Dodgers are rightly considered heavy favorites to win the division, I'll take the over on that Colorado win total. In part that's because they have the benefit of playing an unbalanced schedule in what looks like the NL's weakest division. The Giants and Padres (the latter even with Manny Machado) look like two of the league's worst teams on paper, and the Diamondbacks have gotten worse since the end of last season. Having the chance to fatten up on the bottom of the division could greatly help the Rockies when it comes to competing across divisions for a wild-card spot.
That may be the Rockies' surest path to a third-straight playoff appearance.
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