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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Colorado Rockies.

The Rockies’ offseason is summed up best with punctuation: the question mark. The club signed Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70 million contract in December. That isn’t the strange part. The strange part was signing a player who had been a shortstop and an outfielder, but never a first baseman, to play first base in a market flush with first basemen. And the Rockies forfeited their first-round draft pick to sign Desmond, who had rejected the Rangers’ $17.2 million qualifying offer.

Desmond is a pretty good player. Per Baseball Reference, he has been worth between 2.0 and 4.0 Wins Above Replacement in each of the last five seasons. He’s versatile. He has speed and power. He has some intangibles that certain teams, especially the Rockies, value highly. But Desmond is not a player that should be making teams jump out of their boots to sign and move him to the least impactful defensive position from more important positions like shortstop and outfield.

The odd signing aside, the Rockies look poised to at least be interesting in 2017. They have too many good outfielders, which is like a rich person complaining that he has too much money in his wallet for it to close. Veteran Gerardo Parra is the least impressive of the bunch after logging a .671 OPS across 381 plate appearances last season. As David Dahl is currently battling a back injury, Parra could open up the season as the Rockies’ regular left fielder. Dahl, soon 23, impressed with a .315/.359/.500 line in 237 PA after making his major league debut last season.

Charlie Blackmon returns to center field. As he plays in baseball’s most hitter-friendly park, his offensive achievements tend to be underappreciated. Blackmon, though, posted a nearly identical OPS on the road compared to home, .926 to .939. Overall, he hit .324/.381/.552 with 29 home runs, 82 RBI, 111 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 641 PA. If Blackmon has another typical season, he should merit consideration at least for the NL All-Star team.

Carlos Gonzalez had another typical year in right field. The three-time All-Star hit .298/.350/.505 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI in 632 PA. As he’s aged and dealt with injuries, he’s not quite the MVP-caliber player he used to be, but he’s still an impact player. The Rockies may consider dealing Gonzalez by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, however, because he’s in the last year of his contract.

Moving back to the infield, Nolan Arenado returns to the hot corner. Despite leading the league in home runs and RBI in each of the last two seasons, Arenado finished eighth and fifth in NL MVP balloting. This past season, he batted .294/.362/.570 with 41 home runs and 133 RBI in 696 PA. Unfortunately, he plays in an era that is rich with talented third basemen and that, along with Coors Field being his home for half the season, cause him to be a bit underappreciated. Arenado, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, is among the best defenders at any position, not just his own. It’s hard to see anything but another monster year for Arenado in 2017.

24-year-old Trevor Story will once again handle shortstop duties for the Rockies this season. He was the talk of the town when he ended his first month in the majors last year with a 1.019 OPS, 10 home runs, and 20 RBI. Of course, he cooled off a bit and wound up missing time with a torn thumb ligament, but he still finished with outstanding numbers, good enough for a fourth-place finish in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. As far as NL shortstops are concerned, Story is heading into the season as arguably in the top-five.

As if the Rockies didn’t have enough offense, they have the reigning batting champion at second base in D.J. LeMahieu. The 28-year-old paced all of baseball with a .348 average along with a .416 on-base percentage, a .495 slugging percentage, 51 extra-base hits, 66 RBI, 104 runs scored, and 11 stolen bases. And he played solid defense. LeMahieu was the Cubs’ second round pick in the 2009 draft and went to the Rockies in December 2011 in the Ian Stewart trade. The Cubs haven’t whiffed on deals much lately, but that was a big one.

Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy will handle catching duties for the Rockies. The two are battling it out this spring for the right to start regularly. Wolters is better defensively while Murphy has the better bat. It’s difficult to say at this point who the favorite is, but catching is usually a position where defense and intangibles carry a little more weight than they do at other positions.

The Rockies’ starting rotation doesn’t really inspire confidence. Four spots are spoken for with Jon Gray, Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson, and Tyler Chatwood. Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez are competing this spring for the No. 5 spot. Anderson and Chatwood had great showings last season, each finishing with an ERA under 4.00. Bettis and Gray were north of 4.50, as were Marquez and Hoffman. Pitching in Coors Field is tough and it’s just not going to be the Rockies’ strength, at least this year.

Adam Ottavino is the favorite to open the season as the Rockies’ closer. The right-hander returned from Tommy John surgery in July and posted a 2.67 ERA with a 35/7 K/BB ratio in 27 innings through the end of the season. He misses bats quite frequently and has good enough control where he can legitimately be one of the league’s better closers, but he likely won’t see as many save opportunities as he would on a more competitive team.

Greg Holland, 31, inked a one-year, $7 million contract with the Rockies in January after missing the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery. He’s still working his way back and has yet to make his Cactus League debut. Despite several years of closing experience, this is why Ottavino is very likely to be the Rockies’ closer to begin the season. However, if Holland shows he can be effective early on, he might give new manager Bud Black a choice to make in the ninth inning.

Jairo Diaz also underwent Tommy John surgery and is expected to return around late May or June. He was effective in limited action back in 2015, owning a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings with an 18/6 K/BB ratio. The rest of the bullpen includes a handful of veterans in Chad Qualls, Mike Dunn, Jake McGee, and Jason Motte. Dunn, a lefty, inked a three-year, $19 million contract back in December and is likely to serve as the set-up man ahead of Ottavino.

The Rockies aren’t far away from being competitive, especially if some of their prospects like Hoffman and Marquez live up to expectations. However, in the NL West, the Dodgers and Giants are going to be tough to overcome. It’s going to be a two-horse race in that division for most of the year.

Prediction: 79-83 record, 3rd place in division

The Red Sox start is ridiculous

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The red-hot Red Sox completed a sweep of the previously red-hot Angels last night, outscoring them 27-3 in their three-game series. Last night’s game was, relatively speaking, a close one, with the Sox winning “only” by six runs. They did manage to strike out Shohei Ohtani three times, though, so some style points help make up for the “squeaker.” Also worth noting that they held Mike Trout of all people to a 3-for-11 line in their three-game series. He did not score a single time and drove in no runs.

That series win puts the Sox at 16-2 on the year. They dropped their Opening Day game to the Rays, but then won their next six games against Tampa Bay, which I’d say makes up for it. In between those two series they swept a two-game series from the Marlins and afterwards they took two of three from the Yankees and three in a row from the Orioles. The only thing that even threatened to slow this juggernaut down is the weather, resulting in a postponement of Monday morning’s Patriot’s Day game. Somewhere in here we should notice that they’re doing this with their starting shortstop and starting second baseman on the disabled list.

As we’ve noted many times, their 16-2 record is the best start in the Red Sox’ 118-year history. It’s also the best start for any team since the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers began 17-1 (let us just forget, for the time being, that those Brewers lost 18 of 20 in May of that year). They are the fourth team since 1961 to win 16 of its first 18 games.

The Sox aren’t simply getting lucky here. They’ve scored 116 runs and have allowed only 50, which is a Pythagorean record of 15-3. They lead all of baseball in offense, scoring 6.44 runs a game, leading individually in average, on-base percentage and slugging. They are only three one hundredths of a run behind the Astros from leading all of baseball in pitching, allowing only 2.78 runs a game. They’re winning all of these games because, in the early going, they’ve simply been that dang much better than everyone they’ve played.

No, the Sox are not going to go 144-18, as they are currently on pace to do. Yes, they are going to find a lot more trouble in their schedule once they play the Orioles, Rays and Marlins less, play a healthier Yankees team more and face off against the Astros, the Blue Jays, the Indians, the Twins and some tougher interleague opponents. This is baseball, obviously, and no one makes it through a season without rough patches, long, short and numerous.

Still: this has been one whale of a start for Boston. Those wins are in the bank. It’s been quite the thing to see.