Even in tough NL West, the Rockies might be only a bullpen away from contention
A great offense and a young rotation means the Rockies are a team on the rise
In 2017, the Colorado Rockies will celebrate their 25th anniversary. And, for the first time in their quarter-century as a Major League Baseball franchise, the Rockies might finally be ready to become a consistent contending team.
In their 24 seasons from 1993-2016, the Rockies have never once won the NL West and only three times have they qualified for the postseason. They were knocked out in the NLDS in both 1995 and 2009, and, of course, they made a Cinderella run to the 2007 World Series. Rocktober sure was an out-of-nowhere blast, wasn't it?
The current Rockies appear to finally be in position to return to the postseason in the near future, even after the somewhat confusing decision to sign Ian Desmond to a five-year contract last week. The club has four things going for them right now.
1. Their offense is great, as always.
The 2016 Rockies scored 845 runs, second most in baseball behind the Red Sox (878), and they did that without the benefit of the DH. Yes, Coors Field obviously plays a huge role on Colorado's powerhouse offense. Check it their 2016 numbers:
At home: 6.27 runs per game
On the road: 4.16 runs per game
It's so very easy to discount the Rockies' offensively because of Coors Field, the most extreme hitter's environment in baseball. Players like Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have gone overlooked as great hitters because of their home-road splits. It is what it is.
Two years ago Matt Gross at Purple Row found there's something of a hangover effect when the Rockies go out on the road, meaning they don't score as much as you'd expect away from Coors Field. Pitches behave differently at altitude because the seams of the ball interact differently with the thin mountain air. The Rockies see one set of pitches at Coors Field and a different set on the road, and it's tough to adjust.
Either way, the fact remains the Rockies do call Coors Field home, and it does help their offense. That's not going away. CarGo might not be around much longer, but Nolan Arenado will be, as will stellar supporting castmates Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu. The Rockies will have full seasons of Trevor Story and David Dahl next year, ditto power hitting catcher Tom Murphy. This team is going to continue scoring a lot of runs.
2. They finally have some young pitching.
At this point I'm convinced the best way for the Rockies to succeed at Coors Field is bludgeon their opponents offensively, and get just decent enough starting pitching. Great pitching might not be doable at altitude. Decent pitching would be enough to win with enough offense.
For the first time in franchise history, the Rockies appear to have a collection of high-upside young starters at the MLB level. They've had a Ubaldo Jimenez here and a Jason Jennings there over the years, but never once did they boast a group of starters like they ones they had in 2016:
- Jon Gray (age 25): 106 ERA+ in 168 innings as a rookie in 2016.
- Tyler Chatwood (age 27): 126 ERA+ in 158 innings in 2016.
- Tyler Anderson (age 26): 138 ERA+ in 114 1/3 innings as a rookie in 2016.
- Chad Bettis (age 27): 105 ERA+ in 301 innings from 2015-16.
Chatwood will be a free agent following the 2017 season and has an ugly injury history, so he might not be a long-term building block. Bettis is under team control for another four seasons, however. Gray and Anderson each have five more years of control. They're not going anywhere.
Also, top prospects Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez made their MLB debuts late this past season and got their feet wet, a la Gray in 2015. They're part of the future as well. Not counting Chatwood, the Rockies have five starters with upside all under the age of 28. They might finally be able to build a rotation with multiple quality starters, and not just a Ubaldo here or a Jennings there.
3. Bud Black is an upgrade at manager.
With all due respect to Walt Weiss and Jim Tracy, who combined to manage the Rockies from 2010-16, the recently hired Bud Black is a big improvement in the dugout. He's more open-minded and receptive to modern day strategies like the shift and using your best relievers in high-leverage situations, regardless of inning.
Black also has a reputation for being great with pitchers -- he pitched 15 years in the big leagues himself, and also spent seven seasons as a pitching coach under Mike Scioscia with the Angels -- so he's an excellent choice to lead the team's young rotation. We could debate exactly how many wins a good manager creates, but I have little doubt the Rockies will be better off with Black calling the shots going forward.
4. The farm system is excellent.
The Rockies don't get enough credit for being a great player development organization. There are two reasons for this, I think. One, their offensive players get overlooked because of Coors Field. And two, they haven't had a whole lot of success developing pitchers, also because of Coors Field.
When 2017 begins, the Rockies will have homegrown players at catcher (Murphy), shortstop (Story), third base (Arenado), left field (Dahl), center field (Blackmon), and in three of the five rotation spots (Bettis, Gray, Anderson). Murphy, Arenado, Blackmon, and Bettis were all drafted in the second round or later, so this isn't a case of a bad team stockpiling top draft picks. They've had success up and down the draft. Furthermore, top outfield prospect Raimel Tapia and left-hander Kyle Freeland will be waiting in Triple-A.
The Rockies already have their homegrown core in place, plus they have five of MLB.com's top 100 prospects in the farm system. Those prospects will not only help by being incorporated into the big league roster, but also as trade chips. The Rockies have the prospect capital to go out and make a trade for an impact pitcher if they want. Colorado's prospect pipeline is very deep.
There are reasons to believe the Rockies are ready to take that next step and become contenders. And when young teams take that step, it usually isn't gradual. It's a big leap. The Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015. The Pirates went from 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013. The Rays went from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 wins in 2008. When it happens, it happens quick.
Now, despite all the positives, there's one big reason the Rockies might not make that jump in 2017: their bullpen. Remember how I said their best recipe for success may be scoring a ton of runs and getting decent pitching? Well, the bullpen is far from decent. Colorado's relief crew allowed 321 runs in 524 1/3 innings in 2016. Goodness.
Others in the mix include righty Eddie Butler and lefty Chris Rusin. Clearly there's room for improvement there. Motte and Qualls haven't been true late-inning relievers in several years now, and McGee was both hurt and ineffective in 2017. Others like Lyles, Estevez, Butler, and Rusin have limited track records of success.
The Rockies typically have to overpay pitchers in free agency because no one wants to come to Coors Field. That's why Dunn got three years and both Qualls and Motte got two years last offseason. Fortunately, the team is in a position where they don't need to overpay to add starters. They have a rotation. The bullpen is another matter, and if they're going to continue adding to it, they'll have to overpay.
Perhaps the two biggest bullpen upgrades available to the Rockies going forward are Ottavino and McGee. Ottavino missed the first half of 2016 following Tommy John surgery, and once he returned, he had a 2.67 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 27 innings. He had a 2.87 ERA with 161 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings from 2013-15 before blowing out his elbow.
McGee, who spent all those years as a lockdown reliever with the Rays, pitched to a 4.73 ERA with only 38 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings in 2016. He had knee problems all season and there wasn't quite as much life on his fastball because his power-generating lower half was compromised. Full healthy seasons of Ottavino and McGee would represent considerable upgrades in 2017.
Ultimately, building a great bullpen can be hit and miss because even the best relievers are so volatile. Throw Coors Field into the mix and it gets even more complicated. The best thing the Rockies can do for their bullpen is hoard as many options as possible, because they're going to cycle through them all during the system. That's baseball these days. Bullpen strength is in numbers.
The NL West is a tough division because the Dodgers are a powerhouse and the Giants are always a force to be reckoned with. Winning the division might not be possible for the 2017 Rockies. A wild card spot is definitely in play with some better bullpen work though. Unlike the AL, more than one-third of the NL is rebuilding right now, so there isn't as much competition for those two wild card spots.
The Rockies have a great offense thanks in part to their home ballpark. The rotation finally looks like a potential strength thanks to the young power arms. The bullpen? That's another matter. Building a somewhat reliable relief crew -- again, it doesn't need to be great, just decent enough to support the bats -- is the missing link between the Rockies and sustained success, sustained success that could begin as soon as 2017.
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