Colorado Rockies pitchers and catchers officially reported to Salt River Fields on Thursday and the team's position players aren't far behind. You can almost literally smell baseball in the air. What does baseball smell like? I don't know; ask Jeff Samardzija.
Anyway, the Rockies -- not unlike most other teams in baseball, despite their quiet offseason -- have a lot of interesting things to watch during Cactus League play and the couple of weeks leading into it. Promising young players are on the brink of being big league contributors, injured stars are returning to action and, oh yeah, the Rockies have a new general manager.
Simply because of that last point alone, this spring training will be like few others in franchise history. Here are some of the other things to keep an eye on.
Will Eddie Butler and Jon Gray earn rotation spots?
In a word, doubtful. But that doesn't make the spotlight on the duo any dimmer. Last spring training spawned the first signs that these guys are actually human. Unfortunately, those signs continued to emerge throughout the season. But both are a year older and a year wiser, and in talking to people numerous around the team, there's little doubt that each player learned very valuable lessons from a bumpy 2014.
Still, even blowing the doors off of the Cactus League shouldn't result in either Butler or Gray starting the regular season in the big leagues. Both pitchers need further development time to harness their impressive arsenals, and short of something catastrophic like more than two or three rotation members being unable to start the year due to injury, Butler and Gray will likely receive that necessary seasoning.
Can Wilin Rosario play first base (and if he can, will the Rockies properly utilize him)?
One thing is for sure: Rosario can't catch in the big leagues. He and the Rockies made a valiant effort to make that work, but it's just not happening. The team is on to something, though, with their idea to get him some at-bats even if it means playing in first base or right field, positions at which he won't be a burden on the development of other players like he might be if he remains behind the plate. It isn't always going to be pretty watching him field those positions, but it's also likely that he won't be much worse than Michael Cuddyer.
Regardless of Rosario's defensive shortcomings, it behooves the Rockies to attempt to rebuild his value. If Rosario can return to his 2012 and 2013 levels of power and demonstrates even a little bit of success on the road, it's hard to imagine Colorado wouldn't be able to at least flip him to an American League team in need of a designated hitter. The best-case scenario, of course, is that Rosario proves a formidable enough first baseman, and that the Rockies realize they have something special with a platoon involving the lefty-crushing Baby Bull and reigning National League batting champion Justin Morneau.
Is Jhoulys Chacin healthy or what?
Chacin says he's healthy and the Rockies mostly say he's healthy, but is he really healthy? There's been a few quotes that don't exactly inspire a lot of confidence, but actions speak louder than words, and the Rockies apparently felt comfortable enough with Chacin's shoulder to tender Chacin a $5.5 million contract for 2015. One thing to watch for: If a beat writer gets a quote from someone in the organization about Chacin's shoulder being stiff, we're in trouble.
If Chacin is fully recovered, the Rockies' pitching problems immediately become less of a ... well, problem. The 27-year-old right-hander is a top 20 starter in baseball in terms of adjusted ERA since he broke into the league (seriously, look it up). Improved health and effectiveness could also benefit the Rockies in another way: Chacin is in a contract year and could be flipped at the deadline for a pretty decent return if Colorado is out of contention and he's pitching well.
Why is Charlie Culberson?
With the signing of Daniel Descalso, the presence of two and a half catchers and the Rockies' love for Rafael Ynoa, many are wondering if there's room for Culberson on the roster. Heck, most people don't even understand why he has survived all of the offseason 40-man moves. Here's a little something you might not know about Culberson: He is, by most accounts, the hardest-working player in purple pinstripes. And, guess what else? A team that has won three World Series in the last five years used a first-round draft pick on him!
Realistically, we're not going to find out a whole lot in spring training about whether Culberson has improved since posting a 33 wRC+ last year. But if he's outplayed considerably by players like Ynoa, Cristhian Adames or even Trevor Story (Descalso is a lock to make the team anyway), all of the Culberson detesters might just get their way.
Will Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez get any playing time?
If you're heading to Salt River Fields in hopes of seeing the Rockies' two stars in person, you might be disappointed. Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are at the point in their careers where reps against minor league-caliber pitchers aren't going to benefit them much, and that's a lot of what they'd see early in Cactus League action. Expect both guys to play sparingly until the final week or so, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is when ROOT will finally start airing games.