After two straight seasons of dwelling in the NL West cellar, the Rockies are hoping to turn their fortunes around. But an offseason full of head-scratching moves once again has put into question whether or not Colorado is headed in the right direction.
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End of Season Postmortem
2014 Season Preview
Two Biggest Weaknesses (12:00 PM)
Three Key Questions (1:30 PM)
The Four Horsemen (3:00 PM)
Depth Chart (as of 2/24)
C: Wilin Rosario
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: D.J. LeMahieu
SS: Troy Tulowitzki
3B: Nolan Arenado
LF: Carlos Gonzalez
CF: Drew Stubbs/Charlie Blackmon
RF: Michael Cuddyer
SP: Jorge De la Rosa
SP: Jhoulys Chacin
SP: Brett Anderson
SP: Tyler Chatwood
SP: Franklin Morales
CL: LaTroy Hawkins
In an otherwise uneventful offseason, the Rockies did make one big ticket purchase. That would be swinging a trade for starting pitcher Brett Anderson. Colorado obviously has difficulty attracting pitching talent, so they rolled the dice on the injury-prone Anderson. Considering the research that suggests playing at altitude makes players more susceptible to injuries than normal, this is a deal that is fraught with peril seeing how Anderson has not pitched more than 112.1 innings since his rookie season in 2009 and only 163 innings over the last three years.
When we talk about some of the new faces on the Rockies roster, we have to use the word "new" in only the loosest of terms. Two of the bigger acquisitions for Colorado this offseason were Justin Morneau and LaTroy Hawkins, both of whom are very, very old.
Morneau steps in as the token underperforming veteran first baseman who is valued only because of performing at MVP levels years ago despite being near replacement level currently. He is filling the void created by the retirement of Rockies legend Todd Helton. Hawkins is taking over as closer for the Rockies in part because of his decades of experience but probably mostly so that Rex Brothers doesn't rack up a bunch of saves and get really expensive once he hits arbitration.
To be fair, the Rockies did add a few new faces that are relatively young. Brandon Barnes, a defensive specialist, will be given an opportunity to earn some playing time in center field behind fellow newbie Drew Stubbs. Following Barnes from Houston in the Dexter Fowler trade was Jordan Lyles. Lyles had been dreadful for the Astros, but is still just 24 years old. He'll compete for the fifth starter spot against trade acquisition Franklin Morales and others, but is more likely to end up in the bullpen as a swingman or serving as minor league depth.
Last but not least, Rockies threw $16.5 million at left-hand specialist reliever Boone Logan, because they felt they needed a third southpaw in their bullpen for some reason.
The most notable departure for the Rockies may not have necessarily been the most impactful. Todd Helton, Mr. Rockie himself, finally decided to hang up his cleats. While Helton may have been the face of the franchise for over a decade, his contributions on the field had fallen of dramatically the last few years. His presence could very well be miss in the clubhouse, but it might be a blessing in disguise that they no longer need to pencil his name into the lineup everyday.
In terms of actual production, the biggest loss for the Rockies was Dexter Fowler, who they traded to Houston in one of the more puzzling moves of the offseason. While Fowler never really seemed to reach his full potential, he was a quality defensive center fielder and a high OBP guy at the top of the order. Now, Colorado is going to try and fill both of those holes by throwing a cadre of platoon players at it.
The Rockies also found themselves having to find a new closer after they declined the club option on Rafael Betancourt in the wake of him blowing out his elbow towards the end of 2013. Beyond that, the Rockies turned over the bottom of their roster a bit in trading Jonathan Herrera, the disappointing Drew Pomeranz and lefty specialist Josh Outman.
Colorado's farm system is well regarded right now, but not many of their prospects are primed to help this season. The one player that could make an impact is Chad Bettis. He got his first taste of Coors Field last season, posting a 5.64 ERA in 16 appearances, including 8 starts. He might be a guy that needs more time in the minors, but with the level of turnover in the typical Rockie rotation, Bettis is bound ot get a shot at some point in 2014. It is also entirely possible that the Rockies move him into a relief role where he profiles as a potential late inning weapon.
One other player to keep an eye on is 1B/OF Kyle Parker. He'll definitely start the season in the minors, but could be primed for a mid-season call-up. He's blocked at the big league level right now, but there could be a role for him as the right-handed complement to Justin Morneau.
The names people will want to see this year are top pitching prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler. Butler is the most experienced, with all of six starts in Double-A, but both are advancing rapidly through the system. While they shouldn't be counted on to be major contributors this year, both (but more likely Butler) could get a look in the majors by the end of the season.
The most important position battle for the Rockies will be in center field where they have a several players vying for playing time. A platoon of Drew Stubbs and Charlie Blackmon is most likely, but defensive specialist Brandon Barnes is also in the mix. Considering the vast expanse that is the Coors Field outfield, defense will be an important factor. OBP will be an important factor too since the center fielder figures to be the de facto leadoff man as well. That is where things get a bit dicey with Drew Stubbs, a quality defender in his own right. Another option the Rockies figure to at least consider is sliding Carlos Gonzalez over to center so that more offensive-minded players like Corey Dickerson can work into the equation.
At second base, there is a position battle, but it is a bit of a sad one. D.J. LeMahieu will vie for playing time with Josh Rutledge. LeMahieu is a quality defender, but has so little pop in his bat that he had a sub-100 ISO. That's awfully hard to do when playing your home games at Coors Field. Rutledge was a well regarded prospect who had a solid rookie season in 2012, but got hit hard by the sophomore slump in 2013 as he failed to produce with the bat (60 wRC+) while struggling to a -9 Defensive Runs Saved at second despite playing just 56 games ther in 2014.
Pitching is always a concern with the Rockies, but the rotation is pretty much set except for the fifth starter spot. The frontrunner for that gig is Franklin Morales even though he has only made 25 starts in his career. Chasing him down will be Chad Bettis, Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio and Christian Friedrich. Given the rate of attrition in the Rockie rotation, they will all likely get a crack at it eventually.
You want injury concerns? The Rockies have more than enough to satisfy you. Troy Tulowitzki has infamously been unable to avoid the DL over the last few years suffering a wide variety of maladies to an assortment of body parts. None of his injuries have been terribly serious, but something nagging always seems to take Tulo down.
Carlos Gonzalez was hampered by a finger problem for much of last seasons, but he didn't get surgery this offseason, opting for rehab instead. While he is supposedly healthy now, there is the looming threat that he could reaggravate that finger. Even taking the finger out of the equation, CarGo hasn't played in more than 135 games in any of the last three seasons.
Just to make sure that three most important players are all major injury risks, the Rockies deliberately traded for Brett Anderson this winter. When Anderson is healthy, he is a terrific pitcher, but he is seldom ever healthy. He's dealt with both arm and lower body problems in his young career, which speaks to just how fragile he is as does the scant 163 innings he's logged over the last three years.
On the other end of the rotation, Tyler Chatwood had a bit of a breakthrough in 2013, but he also was only able to throw 111 innings and underwent elbow surgery this offseason and Jhouly Chacin was just shutdown indefinitely due to shoulder soreness.
The biggest thing the Rockies need to achieve their best case scenario is just good health. They have a strong core in Tulo and CarGo, but have never had them both in the lineup for 130+ games each in the same season. If those two can stay on the field, Wilin Rosario leans to take a walk more than once a week, Nolan Arenado makes the offensive leap many expect and Justin Morneau rediscovers his power in the thin mountain air and suddenly their offense can be one of the best in the league after posting a shockingly low 90 wRC+ in 2013.
They actually have a decent pitching staff to build off of after posting a 100 ERA+ in 2013. But health plays a big role there as well. Brett Anderson and his extreme groundball tendencies make him as well-suited as anyone can be for pitching at altitude, but he just can't stay healthy. If he can though, he is the closest thing the Rockies will have had to a legit ace in years. Back him with De la Rosa, Chacin and Chatwood and the Rockie rotation is potentially very solid.
Where they really need help is in the bullpen, but it isn't unreasonable to think their relief corps could bounceback in 2014. Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez had been pretty reliable veterans, but both struggled in 2013. If they regress back to career norms, they can mix in with Hawkins, Rex Brothers and newly signed Boone Logan to give the Rox a pretty deep crop of relievers, an absolute must for Coors Field.
If all of those elements come together, the Rockies could make a run at the Wild Card. Even in a best case scenario, the Dodgers just aren't within reach for them (or probably anyone else).
Here's the thing, injury-prone players tend to stay injury-prone. For Tulo, CarGo and Anderson to all avoid the DL will require divine intervention. It is far more likely that all three of them miss big chunks of time. If that happens, the Rockies will be playing just to avoid finishing last in the division for a third straight season.
Part of that too is just that their pitching staff is primed to regress. Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De la Rosa and Tyler Chatwood all posted HR/9 rates under 0.60, well below all of their career norms and preposterously low for Coors Field. Unless the Rockies finally figured out the secret to keeping the ball in the park at altitude, this team is going to see a considerable spike in homers allowed. If that happens and the rotation gets struck by injuries, then they are going to have to start cycling through their depth guys and that is where things can get truly scary for them.
They also probably shouldn't count on Michael Cuddyer post a .396 wOBA again. In fact, with Cuddyer turning 35 just before Opening Day, there is a real possibility that he could fall off a cliff. If that happens and Justin Morneau breaks down or fails to take advantage of the ballpark, the Colorado offense could be pretty awful.
Regression is going to happen. The Rockies are building more and more around a groundball pitching staff, but the odds are strongly agains their starting pitchers being able to supress homers as much as they did last season. That doesn't mean they are going to be terrible, but having Chacin, De la Rosa and Chatwood all finish with ERAs under 3.50 was a fluke and very unlikely to be repeated.
Health remains the big wild card here. When Tulo and CarGo are healthy, the offense can be good. But that is seldom ever the case. The problem for this year's lineup is that even the healthy version might be hampered by some of the holes in the lineup. Justin Morneau figures to hit fifth in the order, but that altitude isn't going to solve his inability to handle left-handed pitching. Yet the Rockies don't currently have a platoon mate for him.
What might hurt more than that is trying to find someone to plug into the leadoff role. Drew Stubbs takes a lot of walks, but really struggles to make contact. Even at Coors, playing part-time, he could have a hard time posting an ERA over .315. His likely platoon partner is Charlie Blackmon, but in his brief time in the majors, he's walked in just 2.9% of his plate appearances. Corey Dickerson is the best offensive option at leadoff, but getting him on the field means moving CarGo to center, making it that much harder for Gonzalez to stay healthy.
The Rockies should be better this season, but there are just too many question marks and not nearly enough depth. A 78-win season and a fourth place finish in the NL West seems likely at this point, but with young pitching on the way, 2015 is shaping up to be the year they really make a leap forward.