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.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.