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MLB Opening Day 2016: The Rockies have improved, but how much?

Part Two of our 2016 Rockies season preview: Colorado made offseason moves to shore up its outfield defense, bullpen, and offense against left-handed pitching. Now what?

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies were active this past offseason, shipping out a solid young hitter and losing mostly spare parts to free agency, waiver claims and minor trades. Meanwhile, the team signed a pair of free-agent relievers and a pair of veteran, starting-quality position players before acquiring a legitimate back-end bullpen arm in a trade.

All of that boils down to the Rockies retaining most of their core from a 94-loss team while adding a few helpful pieces. That's a good thing; Nolan Arenado has transformed into one of the truly elite players in baseball (though he still has some major improvement left to do -- more on that later), Jorge De La Rosa continues to perform at a well-above-average level, Charlie Blackmon actually got better when many predicted him to wildly regress, etc.

But that's also a bad thing. Injury-prone starters Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Lyles are going to be expected to provide a lot of meaningful rotation innings. Carlos Gonzalez hit a career-high 40 home runs last season, but all of his other skills are declining. Who in the world knows what will happen with Jose Reyes, who almost certainly will face a lengthy suspension as a result of a domestic violence incident that took place during the offseason. Major league-ready pitching depth is thin across the board.

That last paragraph is why most pundits -- and projection systems -- believe the Rockies will finish in the National League cellar once again. You won't find an argument here, and if injected with truth serum, it's doubtful that Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich would disagree either.

Colorado baseball fans are tired of hearing this, but it needs to be said anyway: this season isn't going to be about winning. Yes, that was said last year, too. But it became much more obvious when the team traded star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for pitching prospects and made some other future-based moves, including dealing Corey Dickerson for the flippable Jake McGee and, yes, another pitching prospect.

But what, if anything, can the Rockies do to have an unexpectedly competitive season? And what will contribute to the seemingly inevitable last-place finish?

Where they'll succeed

A fireballing young hurler overcomes his command issues. The crafty veteran catcher plays through injuries and rights all of his wrongs from the past and emerges as one of the best leaders in the game. The speedy outfielder realizes he can't rely on one skill and improves his all-around game. The power-hitting first baseman finally figures out how to hit an offspeed pitch. The team pulls together and wins despite the poor intentions of its crooked owner.

Well, that's the plot of Major League, and unfortunately, the Rockies' chances of reaching the pinnacle of their league are just as unrealistic.

Instead, let's take a closer look at the improvements the Rockies made:

Outfield defense
Defensive Runs Saved per year, career
Corey Dickerson -6
Gerardo Parra 10

What the 28-year-old Parra, the recipient of a three-year contract, might give up to Dickerson in offense over the next few years could be similar or higher in value to what he'll give the Rockies on defense. Though his numbers declined a bit during the last two seasons, Parra will almost exclusively play left field for the Rockies. That should help hide any loss of range that he may or may not have experienced.

The team will have to be careful to not negate any defensive gains when deciding where and how often to play Ryan Raburn, a minor league free-agent signing who has a great chance to make the 25-man roster out of spring training. Raburn has been worth two runs below average in the outfield for his career, making him an inferior defender to Brandon Barnes (13 runs above average), whom the Rockies could keep aboard as a fifth outfielder or option to the minors to begin the season.

Career relief stats
ERA BB/9 K/9
John Axford 3.52 4.5 10.6
Christian Friedrich 4.67 3.5 7.5
Scott Oberg 5.09 4.8 6.8
Jake McGee 2.77 2.5 11.1
Jason Motte 3.16 2.6 8.7
Chad Qualls 3.80 2.3 7.0

As ridiculous as this sounds, it's not all that farfetched to say that the 2016 Rockies bullpen may come close to cutting its walks in half over the previous season. Not only that, but McGee and Motte bring arsenals that the organization believes are a perfect fit for Coors Field. That, combined with the big league experienced possessed by the trio, should make this the single most improved unit on the team.

Oberg will still get some innings with the Rockies in 2016, but the new additions -- plus a full season of Justin Miller, the eventual return of Adam Ottavino, and improved upper-level minor league relief depth -- should lessen his role and perhaps allow him to flourish.

Offense vs. LHP
vs. left-handed pitchers
All Rockies (2015) .256 .310 .367
Ryan Raburn (career) .264 .339 .487
Mark Reynolds (career) .231 .348 .456

While we might not see Raburn and Reynolds come up with many more hits than their predecessors against southpaws, their on-base production and power, based on history, should be much more prevalent. That's good news for the Rockies, who put up with some putrid numbers against lefties from some departed players a year ago.

Corey Dickerson, for instance, didn't see the field a ton because of injuries but managed to hit just .268/.305/.357 in left-on-left situations. Having Raburn, a true platoon player who is already familiar with the role, will certainly help mitigate that deficiency (though Walt Weiss will have to resist the urge to play Parra, a poor hitter against lefties himself, more than he should).

Meanwhile, Reynolds' presence at first base will help limit the exposure to southpaws for Ben Paulsen, who posted a .235/.289/.265 line against same-handed pitchers in 2015.

Where they'll struggle


For as good as the bullpen has a chance to be, the Rockies' starting rotation is going to have trouble keeping runners off the basepaths.

Even with Lyles and Chatwood healthy and ready to go, we're talking about a pair of pitchers who walk, on average, more than 3.0 batters per nine innings and don't typically miss bats. Jorge De La Rosa and Jon Gray, the team's two most proficient starters in terms of striking batters out, also combined to issue well over three free passes per nine (by way of comparison, the NL average last year was 2.9 BB/9).

Then there's Chad Bettis, who had a breakout 2015 season (110 ERA+) but still owns a below-average walk rate and is only that breakout season away from being completely lost at the big league level. If he builds on his solid year, Gray makes the strides expected of him and the veteran trio just stays healthy, we're looking at a rotation that, at best, has a chance to finish around league average. As you'll see below, that probably won't be enough to make up for some of the club's other deficiencies.

If all doesn't go according to plan with the rotation, the Rockies can either throw the likes of Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland into the fire or depend on mediocre depth consisting of Yohan Flande, Christian Bergman, Eddie Butler, Chris Rusin and David Hale. Could they do worse? Perhaps. Will those guys win the Rockies a bunch of games? Nope.

Getting on base

What? The team that returned most of the core players responsible for the top-scoring lineup in the NL last season is going to have a problem hitting? Well ... yeah.

While the Rockies as a whole scored more runs and had a higher OPS than any other team in the NL in 2015, their road production was, well, woof. This is nothing new; the Coors effect is real and seems to only be gaining more momentum. But the crux of the problem lies in the Rockies' increased issues with getting on base.

Overall, the Rockies finished with a .315 OBP, a tick below the NL average of .316. For a team that posted a .352 OBP at home, that's depressingly low. That's because Colorado's road OBP was a paltry .277, 34 points lower than the league average. To further illustrate the Rockies' on-base issues, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a total of 3,804 runners on base during their plate appearances last year. The average NL team had just over 3,600. The Rockies? Just 3,385, 27 more than the notoriously punchless San Diego Padres.

The worst part about this is it severely affects the team's best player, Arenado, in multiple ways. Not enough runners are getting on base in front of him (as well as Gonzalez), limiting his chances to knock in runs, which seems weird considering he had 130 RBI last year. Not only that, but Arenado is part of the problem himself; his OBP was just .323 -- lower than his 2014 total -- and he reached base fewer than 30 percent of the time away from Coors Field.

Arenado is a terrific player being held down by one glaring problem. In a way, he is a metaphor for the entire Rockies' offense, which otherwise has a nice balance of speed, power and contact ability.

But this serves as another feather in the cap in the "getting on base is the most important thing a hitter can do" argument, and the Rockies -- plagued by the organization-wide issue for years -- must continue to attack it, or all the improvements listed above won't add up to much of anything.

★ ★ ★

Tomorrow, in Part Three of our Rockies season preview, we'll focus on prospects who could debut in 2016 -- and will hopefully help the club overcome these issues while contributing to the existing areas of improvement.