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2014 Preview: Colorado Rockies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Colorado Rockies.

The Big Question: Can the Rockies get back over the .500 mark?

Rookie manager Walt Weiss led the Rockies to a 10-win improvement (64 wins to 74 wins) last year, but it wasn’t good enough to prevent the club from a second straight last-place finish in the National League West. After abandoning their four-man rotation experiment, the starting pitching was better with Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa healthy and Tyler Chatwood surprising, but the pitching on the whole was still far from good. Meanwhile, the offense couldn’t do enough to make up for it. In fact, the Rockies scored their fewest runs in franchise history last year, not including the strike-shortened season in 1994.

With Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have two of the best players in the game, but we saw once again last season that it’s difficult to rely on either of them to stay healthy. Colorado was actually five games over .500 as late as June 11, but injuries to Tulowitzki and Gonzalez soon followed and the club predictably struggled as the year moved along. Michael Cuddyer won the NL batting crown last season and Wilin Rosario continued to show why he’s one of the best power-hitting catchers in the game, but ideally they’ll be complementary pieces to Tulowitzki and Gonzalez this year, not trying to carry the load for the offense.

The Rockies fell short in their efforts to land Jose Abreu, Brian McCann, or Carlos Ruiz over the winter, but they still did quite a bit of tinkering. While the Dexter Fowler trade with Houston was a head-scratcher, they used the cost savings to sign Justin Morneau to help replace the retired Todd Helton at first base. They invested a lot of money into the back end of their bullpen with the additions of LaTroy Hawkins and Boone Logan. They also bought low in trades for the injury-plagued Brett Anderson and the free-swinging Drew Stubbs and even brought Franklin Morales back into the fold.

The Rockies don’t look like a contender at first blush, but their activity over the winter suggests that the front office thinks they can be. For a chance at .500 or better, my guess is they’d need 140-plus games out of both Tulowitzki and Gonzalez and for Anderson to stay healthy enough to rediscover some of his early promise. It’s a tough sell. They could take a step back from 2013 if Chacin’s shoulder issue continues.

What else is going on?  

  • After saying for most of the offseason that Carlos Gonzalez would replace the departed Fowler as the starting center fielder, the Rockies recently changed course by deciding that he’ll remain in left field. It’s the right move, as he has a better chance to hold up there, especially coming off a nagging finger injury. Drew Stubbs and Charlie Blackmon now figure to get most of the playing time in center field while Corey Dickerson could find himself in Triple-A to begin the year.
  • Nolan Arenado didn’t make his major league debut until April 28 last year, but he ended up becoming the first rookie to win the Gold Glove Award at third base since 1957. While we know he can pick it at the hot corner, his bat remains a work in progress, as he hit .267/.301/.405 with 10 home runs and an 82 OPS+ in 113 games last season. He doesn’t turn 23 until April and Coors Field is a pretty good environment to facilitate a power progression, so the Rockies are hoping for him to take the next step in 2014.
  • The Rockies raised some eyebrows over the winter when they signed LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the idea of using the veteran reliever as their closer in 2014. While this could be a way to keep Rex Brothers’ salary down in arbitration, the odds are against the 41-year-old Hawkins keeping the job for long. Look for the Rockies to give in to Brothers eventually or potentially test Chad Bettis at some point.
  • What will the Rockies get out of second base? Josh Rutledge was supposed to be the guy last year, but he struggled on both sides of the ball and even found himself demoted to Triple-A for a stretch. DJ LeMahieu benefited from Rutledge’s struggles and ended up logging 434 plate appearances. While he was a solid defender and showed a knack for making contact, he could only muster a .673 OPS (75 OPS+). LeMahieu should be the favorite to begin the season as the starting second baseman, but that could change quickly depending on how Rutledge swings the bat.
  • The Rockies have some questions in the back end of their rotation, but there’s help on the way with right-handers Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, who are arguably the best tandem of pitching prospects in the game right now. Butler is likely to arrive sooner, possibly by July if all goes well. It’s tough to say what sort of impact pitching in Coors Field will have on them, but there’s some hope in the pipeline. And that’s something.

Prediction: The Rockies could be an interesting team if things break right, but you could say the same thing for a lot of teams. As it stands, there are too many questions here. Fifth place, NL West.

Diamondbacks mulling over moving Yasmany Tomas to left field

Arizona Diamondbacks' Yasmany Tomas (24) blows a gum bubble during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Friday, May 22, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
AP Photo/Matt York
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After trading Ender Inciarte to the Braves as part of the Shelby Miller deal, Yasmany Tomas will go into 2016 as a regular in the Diamondbacks’ lineup. Signed to a six-year, $68.5 million contract in December of 2014, Tomas batted .273 with nine home runs and a .707 OPS over 426 plate appearances during his first season in the majors last year while struggling defensively between third base and right field. Third base is out as a possibility at this point, but the Diamondbacks are mulling over another defensive change for him.

According to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said Friday that the club has discussed moving Tomas to left field and David Peralta to right.

“We’re definitely talking about it,” Hale said. “(Outfield coach) Dave McKay and I, (General Manager Dave Stewart) and (Chief Baseball Officer) Tony (La Russa), we think it might be best to switch them around.”

When the third base experiment flopped, the Diamondbacks put Tomas in right because they felt he would be the most comfortable there. The metrics weren’t kind to him. He’ll now have a full spring training to work on things if the club decides to make a change. Peralta isn’t the defender that Inciarte was, but he’s better than Tomas, so it’s understandable why the Diamondbacks would change their alignment.

Tomas is likely to be a liability no matter where he plays, but the Diamondbacks won’t mind as much if his bat begins to meet expectations. For a team with designs on the postseason, he’s a big key for this lineup.

Cubs, Jake Arrieta avoid arbitration at $10.7 million

Jake Arrieta
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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The Associated Press is reporting that the Cubs and starter Jake Arrieta have avoided arbitration, agreeing to a $10.7 million salary for the 2016 season. That marks the highest salary on a one-year deal for a pitcher with four years of service, the AP notes. Arrieta and the Cubs were set to go before an independent arbitrator but now can simply focus on the season ahead.

Arrieta, 29, is in his second of three years of arbitration eligibility. He had filed for $13 million while the Cubs countered at $7.5 million. The $5.5 million gap was the largest among players who did not come to terms with their respective teams by the January deadline. The $10.7 million salary is $450,000 above the midpoint between the two submitted figures.

Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award for his performance this past season, narrowly edging out Zack Greinke, then with the Dodgers. Arrieta led the majors with 22 wins, four complete games, and three shutouts. With that, he compiled a 1.77 ERA and a 236/48 K/BB ratio across 229 innings.

Once a top prospect in the Orioles’ minor league system, Arrieta struggled in the majors but found immediate success with the Cubs in 2013 after the O’s traded him along with Pedro Strop in exchange for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman.

Giants sign Conor Gillaspie to a minor league deal

Los Angeles Angels third baseman Conor Gillaspie is unable to hold on to the ball after catching a grounder hit by Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain in the fourth inning of a baseball game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
AP Photo/Colin E. Braley
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Per Baseball America’s Matt Eddy, the Giants have signed infielder Conor Gillaspie to a minor league deal. Gillaspie was selected by the Giants in the supplemental round of the 2008 draft, then was traded to the White Sox in February 2013.

Gillaspie, 28, hit a meager .228/.269/.359 with four home runs and 24 RBI in 253 plate appearances between the White Sox and Angels during the 2015 season. Almost all of his playing time has come at third base but he can also play first base if needed.

The Giants, thin on depth, will allow Gillaspie to audition in spring training for a spot on the 25-man roster.

Joe Nathan plans to pitch in 2016

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan throws against the Chicago White Sox in the ninth inning of a baseball game in Detroit Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that free agent reliever Joe Nathan, recovering from Tommy John surgery, plans to pitch in 2016 according to his agent Dave Pepe. According to Pepe, Nathan’s workouts are “going well” and the right-hander is “definitely planning on playing this year.”

Nathan, 41, got the final out on Opening Day (April 6) against the Twins before going on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right elbow, causing him to miss the next 161 games. He will likely be able to contribute out of the bullpen in late May or early June if he has no setbacks. On a minor league deal or incentive-laden major league deal, Nathan could make for a low-risk gamble.

Over a 15-season career that dates back to 1999 (he did not pitch in the majors in 2001 or 2010), Nathan has 377 saves with a 2.89 ERA and a 967/340 K/BB ratio over 917 innings.