They did it. They finally slayed the dragon.
For years, the Rockies underwent an existential crisis, one that saw countless pitchers flame out due to injuries, attrition, and general awfulness. Nobody seemed to have any answers to the dilemma of how to field an effective and healthy pitching staff at mile-high altitude. Even after adjusting for Coors Field's offense-inflating properties, the Rockies perennially ranked at or near the bottom of the league in just about every major pitching category.
Over the past two seasons, that script has flipped. After presiding over a new generation of talented young hurlers as Rockies farm director, Jeff Bridich helped shepherd many of those same pitchers to the big leagues as the team's general manager. That wave of successful player development, combined with manager Bud Black's stewardship, a dash of good luck, a couple of well-placed trades, and just plain better talent, led to Colorado going from the bottom of the league to near the top on the pitching leaderboards.
- 2018 Result: 91-72, second place in NL West
- Key free agents: D.J. LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, Carlos Gonzalez,Gerardo Parra,Drew Butera, Matt Holliday
- Needs: Second base, outfield, first base, relief pitching
In 2017, all of the Rockies' starts came from pitchers in their age-28 seasons or younger. Collectively, they ranked an impressive seventh in MLB by park-adjusted ERA. In 2018, they were the model of durability: Each of the team's top four starters made 31 or more starts, and all but one of the team's starts were made by just six pitchers. The result was the first set of back-to-back playoff appearances in franchise history.
With the DIamondbacks rebuilding and the Giants and Padres coming off sub-.500 seasons, the Rockies again look like the biggest threat to the Dodgers' run of NL West titles. If German Marquez (heisted from the Rays back in 2016) posts another top-five strikeouts season and homegrown phenom and Denver product Kyle Freeland improbably challenges for another ERA title, they'll have a puncher's chance to win the division for the first time in franchise history.
The Rockies' problem now isn't their rotation...it's their lineup. They ranked an abysmal 25th in park-adjusted offense last season, with multiple laggards to blame. LeMahieu posted his worst numbers in four years, generating a .276/.321/.428 line that rated as 12 percent worse than league average (adjusting for his home park); he and his agent might be disappointed as they shop the free-agent market this winter. Likewise catcher (Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters) and left field (Gerardo Parra) were trouble spots.
Twenty-four-year-old David Dahl enjoyed a breakout season in 2018 and should replace Parra. That still leaves one corner spot to fill, with Carlos Gonzalez also a free agent who, entering his age-33 season, probably isn't worth re-signing.
The bigger dilemma is what to do with Ian Desmond. As much as Bridich deserves credit for building a dynamic young pitching staff, he deserves raspberries for the five-year, $70 million deal he gave Desmond two years ago. In Desmond, the Rockies were throwing a megadeal at a player with iffy plate discipline, decent but not elite power, and one of the highest groundball rates of any hitter in baseball. They were also asking him to play first base, a position he'd never before played in the big leagues, and one that requires gigantic offensive production to keep up with league norms...the kind of gigantic production that Desmond had only once shown in his 20s, and was now being asked to produce in his 30s.
In an era of GMs being extreme risk averters who pour 8,000 levels of analysis into every deal, the Desmond contract was the very rare move in today's hypercautious era that almost every observer hated immediately. For good reason, as it turned out. Even though Desmond has three years left on his big contract, he's also been a sub-replacement-level player in each of his two seasons in Colorado. Which is to say, if the Rockies released him tomorrow, they wouldn't miss a thing, and would immediately improve just by acquiring someone with a pulse to take Desmond's place.
If the Rockies can acquire legitimate thumpers to replace Gonzalez and Desmond, they'd go from contenders to squeak into the postseason for the third straight year to legitimate threats to make it to the World Series for the second time in franchise history.
Another potential helper toward that goal would be upgrading the team's bullpen. This is a trickier problem to solve. Unlike how the Rockies went with status quo last season at several key positions, Bridich threw a ton of money at multiple relievers to fill holes in the pen last winter.
The results were mixed, at best. Wade Davis (three years, $52 million) led the National League in saves, but also delivered a 4.13 ERA, his velocity and strikeout rate both dipping following his lights-out 2017 campaign. That was still considerably better than Jake McGee, who re-signed on a three-year, $27 million deal only to serve up 10 home runs and a 6.49 ERA in 51 ⅓ brutal innings, or Bryan Shaw, who came over from Cleveland on his own three-year, $27 million pact, only to serve up career-worst walk and home-run rates, and a hideous 5.93 ERA.
Other than hoping and waiting for pitchers like McGee and Shaw to bounce back, the best approach to filling a bullpen is often simply to develop a surplus of wildly talented arms, then move the pitchers with the shallowest repertoires and least stamina to the pen. Jeff Hoffman was the prize of the Troy Tulowitzki deal with the Blue Jays, but he's struggled through his first 139 ⅓ innings as a big leaguer; one wonders how he'd fare if he's allowed to slim down his arsenal and run with a bullpen job right from opening day. The Rockies shockingly wielding one of the deepest rotations in the game affords them the luxury to find out.
Given how well things have gone for the rest of Colorado's pitching kiddie corps, an improved pen could very well be in the cards. That and a couple of bats and another Rocktober could be on the way.
Jonah on the MLB offseason