We’re a little more than halfway through Cactus League play, though the Colorado Rockies probably wish it would just end already. Injuries are mounting: six players on the 40-man roster—Chad Bettis, David Dahl, Ian Desmond, Rayan Gonzalez, Tom Murphy, and Chris Rusin—are missing time due to ailments of varying degrees.
Fortunately, the talent and depth appear better than they have been in years past, and that assertion is already starting to manifest itself this spring, which has produced strong performances from players who will either be firmly entrenched in the team’s regular plans for years to come or are on the periphery of the eventual 25-man roster but can put themselves in a position to help the major league club immediately.
What’s potentially unfolding is the emergence of an ace, some quality big league bench depth, and a couple of back-end rotation arms. Of course, we won’t know for sure until the real games start, but this is what we have for now. And it’s looking pretty danged good.
On to the top statement makers...
The top rookie pitcher in baseball last year looks like he’s taking a big step forward heading into 2017. Gray has worked 10 2⁄3 innings this spring, allowing just one run on five hits while racking up 11 strikeouts.
The 25-year-old right-hander was miffed about issuing three walks in his most recent start, a testament to his growing desire for perfection on the mound. The same scout who told Purple Row last spring that Trevor Story looked like “one of the Rockies’ two or three best players” is lauding Gray this spring for everything from his mound presence to his strength.
“His body language is so much better than it was even a year or two ago,” said the evaluator, who works for a rival NL West club. “And he looks stronger, which is helping him repeat his delivery and throw with more consistent velocity.”
“He’s definitely an intimidating presence for hitters,” the scout added. “Should be an ace.”
Not too many people could’ve been sure about how Senzatela would bounce back this year following what was essentially a lost 2016. Senzatela logged just 34 2⁄3 innings in seven starts for Double-A Hartford, though he was very good—1.82 ERA, 27 strikeouts, nine walks—in that limited time. But Rockies manager Bud Black had a good feeling about Senzatela from the start, telling Purple Row in January that he expected the 22-year-old righty to seriously compete for a rotation spot.
Through this point in the spring, the skipper appears to be on to something.
Senzatela, aside from one outing against the Royals in early March, has been dominant in Cactus League play. The Venezuela native owns a 2.38 ERA with 10 strikeouts and just one walk in 11 1⁄3 innings, essentially mirroring his professional performance (2.45 ERA in 489 1⁄3 minor league frames) to date. Senzatela thrives on plus command of a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He’ll need to continue developing a third pitch in order for his success to fully translate to the big leagues in a starting role, but he’s been throwing a changeup this spring and reviews have been positive.
The need for that pitch to become big league ready will likely keep Senzatela in the minors once the season starts, but don’t be surprised if he’s not there for long.
When the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to the biggest free-agent contract the club has ever dished out to a position player, a widely held belief was that a trade involving Blackmon was soon to follow. Whether the Rockies seriously fielded offers for their center fielder is unknown, but either way, Blackmon is doing his best to make them glad they held on to him.
Blackmon has 12 hits, including four doubles and a homer, in 26 at-bats this spring. No matter one feels about spring stats, that’s a good sign for a player who has drastically improved in each of the three previous seasons. It can’t hurt that the trade rumors are behind him, too, even though the man nicknamed Chuck Nazty spotlessly handled the situation.
That the Rockies didn’t even seem to entertain acquiring big league-level veteran catching depth during the offseason says a lot about what the team thinks of projected starters Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy.
And it might say equally as much—if not more—about Garneau.
The 29-year-old backstop, who has spent some time at the big league level in each of the last two seasons, has seven hits—six of which have gone for extra bases—and four walks in 23 plate appearances this spring. Garneau has left the yard three times and, for good measure, has thrown out three of seven attempted base stealers.
But overall, what he’s doing this spring is putting the club’s mind at ease regarding its catching situation, which got a little more hairy when Murphy was shelved with a fracture in his forearm. Murphy won’t miss much time, but Garneau’s presence is certainly enough to soften any blow that might have otherwise been felt in his absence.
Story, after having a tremdous spring last year and following it up with a wildly successful rookie season, is back at it in 2017. He leads the club with four Cactus League homers and is hitting .310/.375/.862 in just over 30 plate appearances overall.
The best part of that, of course, isn’t that Story is putting up good numbers—it’s that he’s doing it while coming off of an injury that cost him the final two months of his debut season. He’s showing that he’s fully healthy and capable of being the explosive offensive player that he was in 2016, and that will bode well for the Rockies as they attempt to transition into a contender in 2017.