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.

Johnny Cueto expected to opt-out of his deal after the season

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Johnny Cueto signed a six-year $130 million deal with the Giants prior to the 2016 season. In his first season he went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 219.2 innings, helping lead the Giants to the playoffs. This season has been rocky for Cueto — he’s got a a 4.42 ERA in 15 starts and has battled blisters — but they’ve been far rockier for the Giants overall, as they sit in last place in the NL West and have the second worst record in baseball.

Many suspect that the Giants will either rebuild or, at the very least, restructure some in response to this nightmare year. If so, they’re likely going to be doing it with Cueto, who Jon Heyman reports is going to opt-out of his deal:

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto is planning to opt out of his contract at the end of the year, but he would listen to any extension offer . . . Cueto has $84 million to go over four years. It would probably take an injury or major slump for Cueto not to opt out. But it makes sense that he will.

Heyman says the Giants are not inclined to give him an extension, so expect to see Cueto on the free agent market three days after the World Series ends, which is the deadline for him to exercise his opt-out rights.

The Dodgers are concerned about Julio Urias’ shoulder

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Things are going great for the Dodgers lately. They’ve won seven consecutive games and 13 of their last 14. They lead the National League in wins and are in first place in, arguably, the best division in baseball.

But there are a lot of moving parts on a baseball team, and even when some things are going great, other things can go not-so-great. Like this:

Urias has been diagnosed with shoulder inflammation and shut down indefinitely. An MRI last week showed no structural damage, but his shoulder is still bothering him. He has not pitched in the bigs since late May, when he allowed seven runs in less than three innings against the Miami Marlins. He was sent down after that and went 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA, six walks and 17 strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched in three starts with Oklahoma City before being shelved.