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Colorado Rockies 2017 season preview: It’s all about keeping the momentum rolling

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The Rockies in 2016 answered a lot of questions about the future of the team on the field. The 2017 version must continue to build upon that foundation.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The time might not be now for the Colorado Rockies, but it’s rapidly approaching.

Coming off of a 75-win season that had featured actual, legitimate glimpses of hope, the Rockies should be primed to take another step in the direction of contention this year.

The starting lineup when healthy includes at least six All-Star-caliber players. New additions and graduated prospects render a couple of 2016 Opening Day starters as solid bench options this time around. The rotation, while young, features three proven starters surrounded by rookies as promising as the team has ever had. And the bullpen—the Achilles heel of last year’s squad—is set to improve not only by default, but also because of upgraded talent in a couple of key areas.

The end result should provide fans all across the Rocky Mountain region nothing less than an extra feeling of pride and hope for the future. And, if all goes right for once? Rocktober™ will return to 20th and Blake.

Of course, because this is what always happens, things didn’t get off on the right foot for the Rockies this spring. Chad Bettis, David Dahl, Ian Desmond, Tom Murphy, and Chris Rusin are among the players who have had health-related setbacks to varying degrees, and all were expected to play huge roles for the team from the start. But, aside from Bettis, nobody mentioned above is expected to miss an extended amount of time, and the Rockies are built to tread water until they return.

Tread water. Build momentum. Catch lightning in a bottle. That should be the story of the 2017 Rockies. Here’s how they’ll get there.

Roster changes

Arrivals: Ian Desmond, Alexi Amarista, Chris Denorfia, Greg Holland, Mike Dunn

Departures: Jorge De La Rosa, Nick Hundley, Ryan Raburn, Boone Logan, Eddie Butler

Read more: The Rockies have better backup plans in 2017

Rotation outlook

Projected starters: Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela

The Rockies are in great shape in spots 1-3, but things get a little hairy after that. It’s not that Freeland and Senzatela are bad, it’s just that they’re tremendously inexperienced. Freeland, mainly due to injuries in 2015, has just 273 professional innings under his belt. Senzatela is the proud owner of 34 2/3 innings pitched above A-ball. Both pitchers are as talented as the day is long, but throwing them into the fire in a competitive division—and in the best hitting environment in the majors—could easily come back to bite the Rockies.

The good news is Gray, Anderson, and Chatwood are good enough to net the team a whole bunch of wins during the other three turns in the rotation, making this one of several areas within this article where you’ll see the term “treading water.” Provided the Rockies can get through the likely lumps to be taken by Freeland and Senzatela—and, most likely, by Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez at some point—the club should be in a position to heavily evaluate whether it wants to add a more experienced starter in advance of the trade deadline.

Read more: The Rockies’ starting rotation represents a changing of the guard

Lineup outlook

Projected starters: Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado, Ian Desmond (DL), David Dahl (DL), Trevor Story, Tony Wolters

Coors Field or no, the Rockies’ lineup is going to be one of the most feared in the National League. Nolan Arenado is a trendy pick for NL MVP and the addition of Desmond adds punch and, more importantly, good depth at multiple positions. Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu have turned into star-level players who produce consistently at the plate and in the field. Carlos Gonzalez still packs plenty of power in a quick bat, and David Dahl and Trevor Story showed as rookies that they can more than hold their own against big league pitching.

Unfortunately, Dahl and Desmond will begin the season on the disabled list, but starting in their place will be two lineup stalwarts from last season, Gerardo Parra and Mark Reynolds. Parra was the worst position player in baseball in 2016, but not being expected to shoulder an everyday role could help him thrive as a depth option. Meanwhile, Reynolds was a pleasant surprise in every facet of the game save for home run power, something he may have sacrificed in order to become a better overall hitter. Those two players will help the Rockies tread water until the injured players heal up and return to the lineup.

A key to the Rockies taking another step forward offensively is Tony Wolters. The 24-year-old catcher as a rookie was tremendous behind the plate but only mediocre at it, hitting .259/.327/.395 in 2016. Wolters got better as the year wore on, posting a .330/.379/.511 line in the second half. Building on that improvement in 2017 will be key; Wolters might have a hard time doing that while transitioning into an everyday catcher, but the eventual return of slugger Tom Murphy and the presence of the underappreciated Dustin Garneau should help ease the load.

Bullpen outlook

Projected relievers: Jordan Lyles, Chris Rusin (DL), Scott Oberg, Carlos Estevez, Mike Dunn, Jake McGee, Adam Ottavino, Greg Holland

Editor’s note: Jason Motte was previously listed above but was designated for assignment after the article was published.

Read more: Rockies’ bullpen set to improve in the clutch

It’s hard to say that a unit that lost so many games and finished as the league’s worst is overcrowded, but it is—and only part of that is the result of mediocre options. In addition to the relievers projected to make the Opening Day roster, the Rockies have in the fold the likes of Chad Qualls, Jairo Diaz, German Marquez, and Miguel Castro. Some of those pitchers, in addition to Jordan Lyles and Scott Oberg, may not sound like the most appealing relief options, but the list gives the club much-needed depth in an area that was such big a problem in 2016. Marquez, in particular, is likely to begin the year in the bullpen in place of the injured Chris Rusin.

Speaking of Rusin, he was terrific in every sense of the word as a long reliever last season, posting a 2.58 ERA with 41 strikeouts and eight walks in 45 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. But he’s currently shut down with an oblique injury; if he recovers quickly and returns to action fairly early in the season, he’ll be just as important as anyone else in terms of solving the uncertainty in both the back of the rotation and front of the bullpen. And he’s a far better option in long relief than Jordan Lyles, who last season experienced decent results in his first work as a reliever but posted the same type of poor peripherals we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him.

The late innings portion of the ‘pen, however, appears set. It looks like Greg Holland, the Rockies’ marquee free-agent relief signing, is at least going to strongly resemble the guy who posted a 1.86 ERA with 12.6 K/9 for the Kansas City Royals from 2011-14; Holland continues to gain strength and velocity and has mostly overpowered hitters this spring anyway. Mike Dunn, the club’s other offseason bullpen acquisition, has not allowed a run this spring, and even hitters reaching base has been a rare occurrence. He should slide nicely into the left-handed relief role vacated by Boone Logan, who departed via free agency.

Then, there’s Carlos Estevez, Jake McGee, and Adam Ottavino – all of whom are better than they showed (and that luck would allow) last season. There’s a little bit of a concern with Ottavino’s performance this spring, but in all, this group should improve simply by better luck alone. The good news is, assuming Gray, Anderson, and Chatwood perform as expected in the rotation, there shouldn’t be as much pressure on the bullpen.

Five prospects to watch

Jeff Hoffman. The 24-year-old right-hander was eliminated from Opening Day roster consideration last week after being hit around a bit this spring, which came after he was hit around a bit in a brief big league cameo last September. The point is, Hoffman has not performed well against high-level hitters for a while now. But not all is lost; he’s still pumping mid- to upper-90s heat, and he’s entering what will be just his second professional season. Wait it out and check back later, because there’s a good chance Hoffman improves upon his decent 2016 season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he produced a respectable 4.02 ERA with 9.4 K/9.

German Marquez. As mentioned above, Marquez is probably going to start the season with the Rockies as a long reliever in place of the injured Rusin. There have been rumblings for a while now that the Rockies may view him as a viable bullpen option going forward, but for now, the team would be best served to continue developing him as a starter. Marquez had an excellent season in 2016, posting a 3.13 ERA with a K/BB ratio of nearly 4.0 across two levels of the minors. He followed that by showing signs of brilliance in the majors last September and again in spring training this year.

Raimel Tapia. The 23-year-old outfielder enters the most important season of his pro career to date. Tapia has shown he can rake at every single minor league level, even after a horrendous start at Double-A Hartford last season. The only question remaining is whether he can translate that hitting prowess to the big leagues. There’s a chance he may not get a fair opportunity to do so this year, but that will largely depend on the performance of Gerardo Parra and the health of David Dahl. If one or both of those players block Tapia from getting an opportunity in the majors, he very well may flirt with hitting .400 in the Pacific Coast League.

Brendan Rodgers. The Rockies’ first-round pick in 2015 doesn’t feel he was at his best last season but still managed to put up an .821 OPS with 19 homers in his first full year as a pro. The knock on Rodgers’ full-season debut was that he should’ve put up better numbers with McCormick Field in Asheville as his home park. Expect more of the same chatter this year as he transitions to the extremely hitter-friendly environment at High-A Lancaster. Just don’t listen too much either way; if Rodgers struggles in the California League, he’ll be far from the first high-profile Rockies prospect to do so. If he doesn’t, he’ll eventually wind up in Hartford, where everyone will get an accurate feel for his offensive game.

Riley Pint. The kid made famous from Jeff Passan’s highly touted book, The Arm, has been flashing what makes that arm special ever since he reported to Arizona for instructional league ball last year. Pint regularly touches triple digits with his fastball and sits in the 97-99 mph range. That raw, unteachable talent will be on display this year at Low-A Asheville, where Pint will be taught how to harness his gift and likely experience some adversity in the process.

See the full Purple Row Top 30 Rockies prospects list here.

What others are saying

Keith Law, ESPN

The Rockies weren’t going to be one of my playoff picks anyway, but losing Ian Desmond for a few weeks and David Dahl for an unknown length of time -- with back injuries, even returning to play may not mean returning to full production -- reduces their odds even further. They’d need some miraculous work from the rotation to get to the upper 80s in wins.

Grant Brisbee, SB Nation

Of all the teams in baseball, the Rockies have the easiest path to winning more games than expected. If they can pitch better, they’ll approach 95 wins. This won’t be the first Rockies team we can write that about, but this is a rotation that gives them a better chance to do that than previous permutations. Feels like this is a team that’s ready to do something loud, but that description also covers the possibility of implosion, too.

Dieter Kurtenbach, Fox Sports

In the major leagues in 2017, there aren’t many teams that are expected to make a leap, but the Rockies might be the one team that breaks through. They’ve always had the hitting, but for the first time in a long time, Colorado enters the season with a viable argument that it has the pitching to compete for a playoff spot. It won’t be easy — it will require a near 15-game turnaround – but it is possible with this roster.

This year is a success if …

The Rockies play meaningful baseball in September.

If that happens, the club will have accomplished its overall goal of “keep the momentum rolling.” It will likely mean that the young rotation took another step forward, and that things have continued to go well with the lineup.

But most importantly, it will mean that the club is on track to field a unit that can contend during what appears to be the Rockies’ best realistic contention window of 2018-19. And how the key players—most of whom have never played games that truly matter down the stretch—perform in those big moments will be worth paying attention to.

Prediction

Things will generally go well for the Rockies in 2017. The rotation will continue to experience organic improvement, and the lineup will be an unstoppable force for long stretches and disappear—mostly away from Coors Field—during others. The bullpen won’t be the worst unit in the league, in park-adjustment measurements or otherwise. And the Rockies will finish with their first winning season since 2010.

84-78, 3rd in NL West