Bud Black, for years, overachieved as the manager of the San Diego Padres, often winning a lot more games than expected with some truly putrid rosters.
So, then, imagine the level of excitement the new Colorado Rockies skipper must feel inheriting an offense that, last season, scored its most runs in any year since 2007 and is loaded with All-Star talent like Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, and Trevor Story.
"This is, offensively, the best group I've had,” Black said in a conversation with Purple Row. “These guys are legitimate major league performers and they've done it over a long period of time. The names speak for themselves.”
That’s the typical kind of thing you might read about the Rockies’ lineup in just about every baseball publication. But it doesn’t say anything about the actual strength of a team that should be entering a contention window.
The Rockies are almost always perceived to be full of strong offensive performers, but what has historically set their best teams apart was the presence of a competent pitching staff. We saw it in 1995, when a fantastic bullpen carried the team to its first trip to the postseason. It came again in 2007, when a pair of rookie hurlers joined a few effective veterans on a ride to the World Series. And we saw it one more time in 2009, when five different pitchers started at least 27 games, and all of them were significantly better than league average.
The Rockies’ current pitching staff, based on the combination of potential and performance, looks like it’s close to a breakthrough. But don’t take my word for it.
“I was fortunate to have some very good pitching staffs in San Diego in a pitcher-friendly ballpark,” Black recollected. “I think talent-wise, this group on the mound can be even better. They have a chance to be really, really formidable because of their stuff.”
You don’t exactly have to squint to see it. Jon Gray, who enters this season as the staff ace, was the best rookie pitcher in baseball last year, according to FanGraphs’ WAR. Tyler Anderson was better at limiting hard contact than anyone else in the game. Tyler Chatwood had the best road ERA in the majors. Chad Bettis, who unfortunately may not pitch this season as a result of ongoing cancer treatment, has emerged as a solid, league-average rotation piece.
And that’s just the established guys. Black has never witnessed a stockpile of young pitching quite like what the Rockies possess.
“From what Jeff [Bridich] and the player development people have told me about their makeup, their heads, their baseball minds, their competitiveness—all of that is good, and it's something that's important to me because we're talking a lot of guys,” Black explained. “The depth—[Kyle] Freeland, [Antonio] Senzatela, even down to [Ryan] Castellani and some of the younger guys—is real and it's talented.”
Freeland and Senzatela, in addition to the apparent rotation frontrunners Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez, figure to be in the mix for a starting spot now. Whoever doesn’t stick at the start of the season could be called upon later in the year if one or more of the young arms struggles, something Black acknowledges as a possibility.
“The only thing we have to be cautious about is that it takes time for these guys to really become major league pitchers,” Black said. “It happens fast for some guys, but for most it takes longer.”
It didn’t take too long for the likes of Gray and Anderson to establish themselves, but for every one of those there’s a dozen Drew Pomeranzes or Eddie Butlers. Black and the Rockies know that, and it’s why they’ve amassed such an impressive collection of young arms; at some point, one or two finally have to stick. It finally happened last year, and the team believes it could happen again with a near-ready pitcher like Jeff Hoffman all the way down through a high-ceiling thrower such as Riley Pint.
If and when it does, Colorado’s rotation could solidify as one of the very best in the game. So much for the Blake Street Bombers. No, the new Rockies identity will be on the mound.
The Rockies will be synonymous with good starting pitching.
Admittedly, that’s still in the dream phase, but a close look at 2016 combined with even a basic level of analysis of the young arms on the way should lead one to believe that bold statement is not all that far from happening. The job of Black and the Rockies in 2017 is simply to keep the momentum rolling.
“We're hoping that guys like Gray and Anderson really pitch as well as they did last year, Black said. “If that happens, we'll be way ahead of the game."