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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

Astros hitting coach receives 20-game suspension; A’s Laureano six

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Houston Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron received a 20-game suspension and a fine Tuesday for his role in a benches-clearing brawl at Oakland, while Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano was given a six-game suspension and a fine.

Cintron’s suspension is the longest for an on-field transgression in 15 years, since Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers received 20 games for his altercation with two cameramen in 2005.

“I accept MLB’s suspension and will learn from this,” Cintron said in a statement. “Although I never referenced Ramon’s mother, my actions were inappropriate. I apologize for my part in Sunday’s unfortunate incident. As coaches, we are held to a higher standard and should be an example to the players. Hopefully, other coaches will learn from my mistake so that this never happens again in the future.”

Laureano appealed, so his discipline didn’t begin Tuesday night in Oakland’s game against the Angels. He was in the lineup batting second and playing center field at Angel Stadium.

Laureano was hit by a pitch from Humberto Castellanos with one out in the seventh inning of Oakland’s 7-2 victory Sunday. He began exchanging words with a gesturing Cintron then left first base, threw down his batting helmet and began sprinting toward the 41-year-old Cintron.

Astros catcher Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before the A’s outfielder got to the hitting coach. Laureano is a former Astros player and the rival clubs have been the top two in the AL West the past two years. A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, another former Houston player, revealed the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in November to The Athletic.

Laureano was hit for the third time in the weekend series swept by Oakland – the fifth time the A’s were hit in all while the Astros didn’t get plunked once – and he pointed at Castellanos.

Players rushed out of both dugouts. Laureano was ejected by plate umpire Ted Barrett, and the umpiring crew could easily be heard yelling at the players to “get back to the dugout!” through a ballpark with no fans.

“I just thought that, whew, boy they threw the book at us big time. But what can you do?” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who had already been ejected by the time the brawl occurred and didn’t see it on TV. “The ruling is the ruling. I talked to the powers that be in the commissioner’s office this afternoon and we had a good conversation. So … we have to deal with it and hopefully this brings our guys even closer together. He was a big part of our team.”

The A’s lost the AL wild-card game each of the past two seasons after winning 97 games both years to place second in the AL West behind three-time reigning division champion Houston, which won a World Series in 2017 and an AL pennant last season.

Laureano began Tuesday batting .259 with three homers and 10 RBIs as the A’s regular center fielder and No. 2 hitter.

“It’s just something we have to deal with,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said of the suspension. “I don’t make those decisions, and whatever I think about them doesn’t really matter anyway, so I think the best thing to do is try to get it behind us as quickly as we can.”

Melvin wasn’t sure how he would potentially structure his outfield and lineup without Laureano for several games.

“You can’t replace him,” Melvin said. “You just have to play short.”

The Dodgers and Astros had their own dustup when Los Angeles visited Houston last month. LA lost the ’17 World Series to the Astros when the sign-stealing scam was happening.

In announcing the punishments, MLB said Cintron’s discipline was “for his role in inciting and escalating the conflict between the two clubs.” Given the coronavirus pandemic, baseball has established strict guidelines about avoiding brawls.

“The explanation was that he’s a coach and especially with the COVID situation out here … in essence they’re not going to stand for it,” Baker said. “Basically, somebody had to be the example. Especially in these times that we’re going through.”

A former infielder from Puerto Rico, Cintron played parts of nine major league seasons with Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore and Washington. He won’t be eligible to coach again until Sept. 2, when the Astros are scheduled to host Texas.

“Cintron said what he did was wrong, and he apologized for it,” Baker said. “It still doesn’t take the fact away that it happened.”