2015 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 2015 season. Next up. The Colorado Rockies.

The Big Question: Do the Rockies have a direction?

I have written the Rockies season preview pieces for the previous two seasons and it’s always the same thing. “If Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez can stay healthy, this team could be frisky.” Or something to that effect. It feels silly to say it again at this point, because we just can’t count on it. Tulowitzki was arguably the best player in the game prior to undergoing hip surgery last year, but he has averaged just 106 games over the past five seasons. Meanwhile, CarGo has averaged 110 games over the past four seasons and dealt with all sorts of physical issues last year before having knee surgery. Both players are healthy at the moment, but it’s worth asking at this point whether the Rockies will ever win with them on their roster. Or whether it was wise to even build around them. Coming off three straight seasons with at least 88 losses, it’s time to make some difficult decisions about where this franchise is headed.

Longtime general manager Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett both stepped down after last season, so the man tasked with making those decisions will be new general manager Jeff Bridich. While some clamored for an outside voice to take over, Bridich isn’t exactly that. He was previously the senior director of player development and has been with the organization since 2006. Still, the change doesn’t come without some hope. Geivett created an awkward atmosphere by having an office in the clubhouse and FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal recently wrote that he regularly “butted heads” with manager Walt Weiss and others in the organization. Less drama would be a nice start. The Harvard-educated Bridich is currently the youngest GM in the majors at age 37 and his front office includes three others who are 36 or younger. This is a results-based business, so they still have to prove their doubters wrong, but it should be an interesting situation to follow.

After finishing last in the majors with a 4.84 ERA last season, pitching coach Jim Wright and bullpen coach Bo McLaughlin were both let go. Steve Foster, a former special assistant and pitching coordinator for the Royals, is now in place as pitching coach. Meanwhile, Darren Holmes, who was a part of the Rockies’ inaugural roster in 1993, has replaced McLaughlin. There’s optimism with these new hires, but solving Coors Field is a tremendous challenge and this pitching staff doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence.

Jorge De La Rosa is currently dealing with a groin injury, so offseason addition Kyle Kendrick will be the Opening Day starter. Get excited? There is some youth and upside in this rotation with names like Jordan Lyles, Tyler Matzek, Jon Gray, and Eddie Butler, but ups and downs are to be expected. Butler recently had a recurrence of a shoulder issue, which isn’t a good sign. The Rockies are going to score runs because that’s what they do, but it’s likely going to be another ugly year on the pitching side.

What else is going on?

  • One positive for the pitching staff is that Wilin Rosario’s days as a regular catcher are likely behind him. The decision is long overdue, as he has struggled with pretty much everything behind the plate and needs to find a new position. Bridich didn’t do much in his first winter as GM, but he brought in Nick Hundley on a two-year, $6.25 million contract. He figures to carry most of the load along with Michael McKenry. They might not post the flashy power numbers like Rosario, but this is a net positive for the Rockies.
  • Some scratched their heads when the Rockies made a one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer to Michael Cuddyer last fall, but it worked out great for them, as he declined in favor of a two-year deal with the Mets. The Rockies will now get a compensatory draft pick in this June’s draft and they still have plenty of talent in their outfield. CarGo is a known quantity when healthy while Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson are coming off breakout seasons. Drew Stubbs had a nice year in 2014 (though he did most of his damage at Coors Field) and is a perfectly-respectable platoon option with his ability to play all three outfield positions.
  • The move to Coors Field was exactly what the doctor ordered for Justin Morneau. After struggling through concussion issues dating back to 2010, the 33-year-old won the National League batting crown last season by putting up a .319/.364/.496 batting line with 17 home runs and 82 RBI over 135 games. Who knows what he has in store for a follow-up, but it’s nice to see his career get back on track.
  • LaTroy Hawkins saved 23 games last season as a 41-year-old and is set to enter this season as the Rockies’ closer. His low strikeout rate (5.3 K/9) is dangerous for someone who calls Coors Field home, so he’s no sure thing to keep the job, but he could climb into the all-time top-10 list for games pitched this season if he can stay healthy.
  • I was saving the best for last here. While Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have long been the faces of this team, Nolan Arenado is fixing to change that. He has won Gold Glove Awards in each of his first two seasons in the majors and took a big step forward offensively last season by batting .287/.328/.500 with 18 home runs and 61 RBI across 111 games. He doesn’t turn 24 until later this month and is the biggest reason for long-term hope with this franchise.

Prediction: If things break right, this roster is more talented that the Diamondbacks, so I’ll give them Fourth Place, NL West for now. But they could fall to last behind the Diamondbacks if Tulo and CarGo each miss significant time again or one or both of them are traded.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.