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.

Mad Dog Licks Boots

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Earlier this week Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reported that the MLBPA and the league are heading back to the table more than two years before the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires following the 2021 season.

This had been hinted at for some time, as the union has shown clear displeasure at the current state of business, particularly with the free agent market. The league, one might assume, is happy with the current state of affairs, but it also has an interest in heading off potential strife or even the hint of a labor stoppage in the future. Moreover, there are priorities which have emerged on MLB’s part since the last CBA was signed that they’d love to advance — pace of play, etc. — so they have some incentive to talk as well. So, while it’s totally newsworthy that the sides are talking, it’s also quite understandable and not particularly controversial.

It’s also quite understandable that, given that this is a negotiation between parties in an adversarial position, there will be public comments from the principles which involve advocacy or even posturing on occasion. That’s part of the deal of any negotiation that holds public interest. So, when Tony Clark, for example, says something like “the system doesn’t work,” and “either we’re going to have a conversation now, or we’re going to have a louder conversation later,” which is what he told Kepner, it’s not really a controversial thing. Indeed, it’s expected.

Chris “Mad Dog” Russo thinks it’s pretty controversial, however. The MLB Network host and talk radio legend took to the airwaves yesterday blasting Clark for not being more deferential to Rob Manfred who “was nice enough to extend him an olive branch.”  Russo likewise asked, rhetorically, what “Rob” must’ve thought when reading Clark’s quotes “over his cup of coffee, and bran muffin, on Madison Avenue, after his workout and all those things . . . his morning coffee, milk and two sugars by the way — Sweet and Low.”

He’s the Mad Dog, but he certainly licks boots here:

 

It’s amusing enough that Russo believes that Clark, Manfred’s counterpart and adversary, is supposed to be deferential and thankful for the mighty Manfred. It’s even more amusing, however, that he takes the tack of arguing that MLB has no real interest in negotiating now and is somehow merely throwing the union a bone or offering an olive branch. In saying this Russo, whether he realizes it or not, is accusing Manfred of bad faith, optics-only talks with the union. I don’t feel like Manfred thinks he’s doing that. And I don’t think Clark would be talking to him if he felt he was being patronized to either. Indeed, the dance of the last several months around all of this was, in part, to ensure that that was not the case.

I don’t know what Manfred thought about Clark’s comments on Tuesday, but I do wonder how he feels about being accused by an MLB Network employee of playing games like this. It might be enough for him to spit out his bran muffin and coffee. Cream and two sugars and all.