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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

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 6, Nationals 4: Carlos Gómez hit the big blast here, socking an eighth inning, go-ahead three-run homer. This after the Nats themselves had come behind following Dave Martinez getting ejected. Maybe there’s something to the whole idea of the Nats playing better without Martinez, but it’s trumped by the unreliability of the Washington bullpen, who would probably even make Casey Stengel look bad. So it would seem, at the moment anyway, the conditions for testing that idea are scientifically are not optimal. Washington should probably fix both of those things, though. Maybe they’ll have something if the season is not already lost by now.

Now let’s watch Carlos Gomez (a) lose his shoe running first to third; and (b) be all Carlos Gomez-y on that home run trot:

Pirates 14, Rockies 6: Pittsburgh was leading 8-0 when the Rockies put up a six-run sixth to make things interesting, but a big seventh featuring homers from Josh BellBryan Reynolds and Starling Marte put things back out of reach. Josh Bell on the season: .339/.408/.718 and he’s on pace for 55 homers and 162 RBI. Holy Moly.

Yankees 6, Orioles 5: New York took a 5-1 lead into the eighth and it looked like another cakewalk, but the O’s at least made it interesting with a four-run eighth to tie things up. Brandon Hyde sent reliever Mychal Givens out for the top of the ninth and . . . it didn’t go well. Well, it went well at first, as Givens struck out the first two batters he faced. Then:

If I’m an Orioles fan I suppose I’m happy that game-losing rally didn’t come via even more dinger — at least in the ninth; Clint Frazier and Luke Voit homered earlier — but I suppose that’s cold comfort. Hell, at this point of the season if I’m an Orioles fan I probably want dingers because the infamy of shattering the all-time single season home runs allowed record is gonna be a season highlight. Of sorts.

Red Sox 8, Blue Jays 2: Close for the first two thirds of the game but, unfortunately for the Jays, we usually play three-thirds in this game. Boston scored two in the sixth, one each in the seventh and eighth and then opened up with a three-run ninth to make this one not-so-close. Sox starter Ryan Weber allowed one run over six to give a breather to a bullpen which pitched in a thirteen inning game the night before and Steve Pearce homered and had three RBI. The highlight of the game, though, came from a Jays player. Watch Vlad Jr. through out Rafael Devers from his butt:

Marlins 5, Tigers 2: Make it six straight wins for the Marlins. This one was particularly fun for the Fish and particularly gutting for the Tigers, as Detroit took a 2-0 lead into the ninth only to see reliever Shane Greene cough up all five of the runs Miami would score on the day. First an RBI single to Neil Walker to made it 2-1. A few batters later Ron Gardenhire intentionally walked Curtis Granderson to load the bases, setting up Garrett Cooper for his two-out grand slam. Cooper hit his first big league dinger on Wednesday, so I guess he’s getting the hang of this game. That’s nine straight losses for Detroit. Could’ve been ten as they were trailing in a game against Oakland last weekend that got suspended. Of course it probably feels like 25.

Phillies 9, Cubs 7: Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto homered and Andrew McCutchen had two hits and two RBI as a fairly wild series ends up in a split. Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber homered for Chicago but Jon Lester was kinda shaky. Philly has won five of seven.

Braves 5, Giants 4: Austin Riley hit a game-tying home run in the eighth and then drove in the go-ahead run in the 13th with an RBI single. The kid just got called up nine days ago but he’s already got five homers in those nine games while hitting .389/.421/.833. Someone tell him this game at that easy. Riley and Ozzie Albies each had three hits and Tyler Flowers homered too. The Braves have won 10 of 13 and have pulled to within a game and a half of Philly.

Twins 16, Angels 7: The Angels probably would’ve preferred another rainout. No dice, though, and as it was they gave up eight — 8! VIII! — homers to the Twins. Four of those were surrendered by Matt Harvey, who couldn’t get out of the third inning and whose ERA ballooned to 7.50 on the season. So, um, yeah, that whole experiment has not worked out too well. As for the dingers: Miguel Sanó and Jonathan Schoop went deep twice while C.J. Cron, Max KeplerJorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario had a homer a piece. It was the second time this year Minnesota hit eight homers in a game. The Twins are on pace for 324 homers. The all-time record was set by the Yankees last year with 267. Minnesota is likewise only the second team to hit eight homers in a game twice in a season. The last was the 2005 Rangers. Which, yeah, every game these days sort of feels like old Rangers games. Not that that’s really a compliment, aesthetically speaking. Indeed, longtime readers will know that I tend to default to “1990s-2000s Rangers” as a shorthand for rather boring, offense-heavy baseball. Not that Twins fans should mind, of course.

Rays 7, Indians 2: The “highlight” of this one was a Kevin Kiermaeir inside-the-park homer which was, in reality, a real drag of a play given that it only happened because Tribe outfielders Oscar Mercado and Leonys Martín slammed into each other and got hurt:

Each of the outfielders would stay in the game, thankfully. Both for their own sake and because the Indians are probably one injury or cold streak away from activating Cory Snyder or Albert Belle or someone to play outfield. The Rays got more conventional homers from Tommy Pham, Avisail García and Willy Adames.

White Sox 4, Astros 0: Lucas Giolio went the distance, spinning a four-hit shutout while striking out nine to help the Chisox earn a series split. That’s two straight complete games for Giolito. The last one was a rain-shortened four and a half inning number, but CGs are rare these days. He should own it.