Image credit: Jon Gray (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
The Rockies showed up in spring training last March with an excitement that stemmed from back-to-back postseason appearances, albeit as a wild card both times. That excitement stemmed in part from hanging with the Dodgers in the National League West for 162 games in 2018 before losing the tie-breaking Game 163.
Colorado then traveled to Wrigley Field, where they beat the Cubs in the Wild Card Game before falling to the Brewers in the NL Division Series.
And then reality hit.
As successful as their youthful rotation had been in the wild card years of 2017 and 2018, that good fortune did not extend to 2019, a season in which only a Rockies victory and Padres loss on the final day of the season kept Colorado out of the NL West basement.
As the offseason began, it was gut-check time for the Rockies.
Do they undertake a tear-down?
No, the Rockies are a fairly young club with a strong nucleus in place that includes third baseman Nolan Arenado, shortstop Trevor Story, right fielder Charlie Blackmon and young starting pitchers Jon Gray, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland.
Do they make a major move on the free agent market?
No, probably not.
Do they regroup with a foundation in place?
Yes, that appears to be the plan, because the Rockies’ offensive foundation includes four 2019 all-stars. Arenado was selected by the fans, while the trio of Story, Blackmon and center fielder David Dahl were voted to the NL roster by fellow players.
There also is the emerging Ryan McMahon at second base who gives them versatility with his ability to play both first and third base, too.
The Rockies’ pitching staff has to be addressed, both the rotation and bullpen. The club will attempt to trade relievers Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, who are signed for 2020 with options for 2021 that kick in based on appearances. The Rockies would have to eat a chunk of the 2020 salaries for both—$9 million for Shaw and $9.5 million for McGee.
The key to a rebound lies in a rotation that was the strength of the wild card teams but became an injury-infested headache in 2019.
The five projected starters this year—Freeland, Gray, Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Tyler Anderson—all spent time on the injured list. And tracing the Rockies’ success the past three years has been as simple as calculating how often the projected starting pitchers actually started.
There are questions about whether Anderson can be ready by midseason 2020—if at all after becoming the first baseball player known to have had surgery to correct what is referred to as a chondral defect, damage to the cartilage that lines the end of the bones
in the knee.
The Rockies, however, have reason to feel good about the return of the other four. Gray missed the final six weeks after suffering a fractured left foot, and Marquez was shut down in late August because of developing soreness in his right forearm, which had subsided by the end of the season.
And then there was the late-season emergence of 27-year-old righthander Chi Chi Gonzalez, a Rangers first-round pick in 2013 who missed the bulk of the two previous seasons following Tommy John surgery.
Gonzalez was inconsistent when the Rockies initially called him up in June, but after making an adjustment so he would break his hands over the mound, he allowed just five runs in 27.1 innings in his last five starts—a 1.65 ERA. And four of those starts came against postseason teams, including two against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium and Coors Field starts against the Cardinals and Brewers.
Besides, history has made it clear that there is no investment more foolish than bringing an established big league pitcher to Coors Field, a free agent temptation that has burned the Rockies over the years.
Examples include major free agent investments in starters Mike Hampton (21-28, 5.75 ERA), Darryl Kile (21-30, 5.84 ERA) and Denny Neagle (19-22, 5.59 ERA). All Colorado got in those deals were mile-high contracts that had little appeal on the trade market.
It’s why media or fans might scream for the Rockies to make a free agent splash on pitching help, but the Rockies will resist.
They have paid the price for trying to speed up the process, and they never did get a refund for a defective product.