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Rockies first-half review: Revisiting 5 key storylines

The Rockies are on pace to win six more games than they won a year ago. Going over some key preseason storylines helps shed some light on why that is, as well as why the club hasn't improved even more.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the season has been filled with ups and downs for the Colorado Rockies, who have seen great individual performances from young players and star veterans alikeand, on the flip side, some disappointing play from certain players who needed to be counted on.

On the whole, it appears the team has improvedin some areas, significantlysince last season, when the Rockies finished with a 68-94 record. At 40-48, they're on pace to end this year with 74 victories, a six-win improvement. How did they get there? And, perhaps just as important, how are they not actually on pace for even more progress in the standings?

Let's revisit five key preseason storylines, as well as look at a bonus question, to find out.

Who will emerge as the closer?

After signing Jason Motte as a free agent and acquiring Jake McGee in a trade, the back-end of the Rockies' bullpen was supposed to transform from a weakness to a strength.

That, uh, hasn't happened. In fact, of the several pitchers the Rockies have utilized in late-game situations, they've arguably found the most success with 23-year-old rookie Carlos Estevez.

But even the young Wild Thing has struggled at times. Though he strikes out 10 batters per nine innings, his four walks issued per nine need to be reduced. But at least with him, the future is bright.

It doesn't seem we can say the same about Motte and McGee. Motte, who was shelved with an injury for the first month and a half of the season, has allowed 19 hits (including five home runs) in just 17 innings of work. The good news is he's averaging a strikeout per inning and has kept his walks in check, but we expected that; now he's going to have to start limiting hard contact. Motte has allowed the opposition to hit the ball hard in 37.7 percent of balls put into play. That ranks third-worst among Rockies relievers, ahead of only Christian Bergman and Justin Miller.

McGee yields a lot of hard contact as well, allowing batters to produce a 34.9 percent hard-hit rate in addition to 17 earned runs on 32 hits in 25 innings. The difference between Motte and him, though, is that McGee is striking out fewer than seven batters per nine innings while walking almost three per nine.

Worse, McGee hasn't been able to produce consistently velocity, sitting in the low 90s more often than the 95 mph or so that he's been accustomed to throwing throughout his career. He was starting to get right before landing on the disabled list early in June, but now he faces another uphill climbone that the Rockies can't afford to wait out if they envision themselves as contenders.

The good news is that Adam Ottavino recently returned from missing more than a year following Tommy John surgery. It will take him a while to get back into the full swing of things, but if he returns to anywhere near his old form, he and Esteveznot Motte and McGeecould form the back-end of the bullpen that the Rockies thought they had at the start of the season.

Will Trevor Story crack the Opening Day lineup?

Boy, did he ever.

Story hit four homers in the Rockies' first series of the season and finished April with 10, tying the major league rookie record. He increased his total to 21 at the All-Star break, which also ties a major league record. He's just four homers away from overtaking the National League record for rookie shortstops previously set by former Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki, who hit 24 homers in 2007.

Simply put, Story, who's amassed 1.7 WAR despite striking out a league-leading 114 times and playing only average defense at short, has filled Tulo's shoes admirably—and he's likely only going to get better. Additionally, his performance allowed the Rockies to completely cut ties with Jose Reyes after he finished serving a 52-game suspension to start the season.

Can Jon Gray take the next step?

Since allowing 11 runs in his first two starts of the season, Gray has posted a 3.94 ERA. The 24-year-old right-hander has punched out nearly 10 batters per nine innings and decreased his walk rate, suggesting that he may be coming into form. We witnessed that with a 12-strikeout performance in San Diego and seven shutout innings in San Francisco. Heck, to some degree we witness it every game; Gray regularly throws twice as many strikes as ballssomething that, for a while, was almost unheard of for most Rockies pitchersand has posted a quality start in 10 of his 15 appearances.

Gray went through a bit of a dead arm period in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break. If a few extra days off help him recover rather than make him rusty, he could be in for a terrific second half.

Which pitching prospects, if any, will make their mark in the majors?

Estevez and Tyler Anderson, neither of whom pitched above Double-A prior to this season, have been mostly good overall and, at times, excellent at the big league level for the Rockies in 2016.

The Wild Thing's merits were explained above; Anderson's success has been nothing short of remarkable. Colorado's first-round pick in 2011 has had a professional career littered with injuries, but when he's been healthy, he's been great. That hasn't changed in the majors, where Anderson has posted a 3.03 ERA with 32 strikeouts and just six walks in 35⅔ innings spanning six starts.

Anderson has been a bit hittable, surrendering 39 hits to this point, but he has shown that bearing down and attacking the strike zoneeven with average stuffcan yield positive results at Coors Field. That alone is a huge development for the Rockies as they try to field a pitching staff that can be competitive despite the team's difficult circumstances.

In the second half, the Rockies could see contributions from several more pitching prospects, including organizational top 10 arms Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland. If that duo can make a similar impact to Gray and Anderson, we might need sunglasses at all times in order to watch this team.

Will the Rockies become sellers at the trade deadline?

Crazy that it's July 13 and we still don't really know the answer to this, but that speaks to the tight-lipped nature of the Rockies' front office as well as the ever-present feeling of "hey, we're not out of it" brought about by the extra Wild Card spot.

If the Rockies do sellso far, really only rumors about Carlos Gonzalez and Charlie Blackmon have surfaced, and the accuracy of those is debatablethey have several pieces who could be moved for at least some value. Gonzalez, Blackmon, Motte, McGee, Jorge De La Rosa and Nick Hundley should, to varying degrees, draw the interest of contenders, But I wouldn't count on many, or maybe even any, of those players going anywhere.

Part of the reason for that is because the Rockies are an improved ball club overall. Why that's not translating into more wins could come down to just a couple of things, including ...

Bonus storyline: Is Walt Weiss on the hot seat?

There aren't a lot of ways to quantify how much a manager brings to a major league team. Mostly, they need to say the right things to the media, give playing time to the right players and then, really, just get out of the way and let the guys on the field do their thing.

The problem with the Rockies is that Weiss struggles to find a balance of not doing enough and doing too much. Weiss has been criticized by people within the Rockies organization for not being tough enough on players, according to The Denver Post. And his in-game decision making has been mediocre at best and downright baffling at worst.

Here's one thing in particular to chew on: the Rockies have attempted the second-most sacrifice hits in the NL and have converted, by percentage, the fourth fewest. It's also worth noting that the top four teams in the league in sacrifice attempts—the Braves, Rockies, Reds and Brewersown four of the six worst records in the NL.

In other words, they bunt too much, and they're also not good at it. A lot of that falls on Weiss, as does the Rockies' insistence on pulling starters from games too early and, perhaps related, allowing a boatload of inherited runners to score. Colorado starters have thrown 100 or more pitches in a game just 19 times, which ranks last in the NL, despite the unit placing in the middle of the pack in the league in terms of park-adjusted ERA. To make matters worse, the Rockies' bullpen allows 41 percent of inherited runners to score. That's the highest figure in the NL, and well above the league average of 31 percent.

The overlying concern? Weiss struggles with the "put the talent on the field and get out of the way" thing that big league managers should focus on in this day and age. If that trend continues in the second half, the vast improvements made by the team in most facets of the game probably won't matter.