“Blessed is he who expects nothing,” Alexander Pope wrote, “for he shall never be disappointed.” If only it were so easy to be blessed in this way.
The Rockies will begin the 2018 season with high expectations for the first time since 2011. A Wild Card appearances and 87 wins will do that to a baseball team. With those expectations, however, comes the forewarned possibility to be disappointed. And for the Rockies, that possibility is fairly high if the expectations aren’t properly calibrated. Don’t get me wrong. The team is equipped to turn in a truly great season if things break right. But there are plenty of other reasons to add a good amount of caution to the optimism for 2018.
There are even more reasons to add caution beyond 2018. One reason is natural: There’s just more uncertainty the further into the future we look. It’s not just who will be on the roster at that time, but what kind of players they’ll be and what kind of potential they’ll have. The Rockies are in a position to compete in 2018, even if they are far from safe bets to make the postseason. But the club may be in transition as soon as 2019.
The Rockies signed four free agents during the offseason. There was a theme to the signings:
- RHP Wade Davis, 3 years/$52 million
- RHP Bryan Shaw, 3 years/$27 million
- LHP Jake McGee, 3 years/$27 million (re-signee)
- C Chris Iannetta, 2 years/$8.5 million
- OF Carlos González, 1 year/$8 million
There was also a theme to the players from 2017 who won’t be returning. On the one hand, there are the 30-something position players (Mark Reynolds and Ryan Hanigan), but on the other hand there were the late-inning relievers (Greg Holland and Pat Neshek). The Rockies focused their offseason energy on mitigating the losses from the best bullpen in the National League in 2017 by pulling in new free agents and re-signing McGee. The three signees will join former closer Adam Ottavino, fireman Chris Rusin, and the big potential but haven’t put it together yet duo of Scott Oberg and Carlos Estévez in the ‘pen. Relief does not look to be a problem for the 2018 Rockies.
But there are a few things that have to happen for the Rockies to fulfill raised expectations. First, the Rockies need their three core position players—Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu—to turn in quality seasons again. They’ll need Trevor Story to combine an approximation of his 2016 year at the plate with his 2017 defense at shortstop. Ian Desmond will need to bounce back to at least a league average player, and at least two of their three young position players—David Dahl, Ryan McMahon, and Raimel Tapia—will need to begin reaching their abundant potential. And, finally, the still green members of the Rockies’ rotation will need to at least repeat their 2017 performances in order to allow the sturdy bullpen to do its thing.
Some of these needs are safer bets than others. The core three have demonstrated remarkable consistency over the years. Even if Blackmon returns a little closer to earth in 2018 (just as LeMahieu did after his career best season in 2016), the Rockies can still count on him to be a major contributor. Desmond’s bounce back from a miserable 2017 is also a pretty safe bet (the bar is low).
A lot relies on the most volatile of players: young players, and young pitchers in particular. Of the position player trio, only Dahl has shown that he can handle major-league pitching consistently, but he’s also shown that he’s injury prone. Tapia and McMahon have much wider ranges of possible outcomes. From the pitching side, Kyle Freeland and Germán Márquez both turned in excellent rookie seasons. The Rockies will need a lot of high quality innings from them.
Luckily, the Rockies have pitching depth, so they don’t have to entirely rely on sophomore successes. Some parts of the depth are more reliable than others. Among the “things that didn’t go as planned” in 2017 were Jon Gray’s two-month absence due to injury and Tyler Anderson having just one good month. If players like Freeland and Márquez struggle, the Rockies should be able to rely on the relative veterans Gray and Anderson. Not only that, but the Rockies have pitching depth in yet another wave of prospects that look ready for the majors, namely right-handers Yency Almonte and Ryan Castellani, and lefty Sam Howard. But betting on rookie pitchers inspires less confidence than hoping that last year’s rookies avoid sophomore slumps.
If the Rockies meet or exceed expectations in 2018, it will likely be due to a combination of a healthy and positively developing rotation supported by a good bullpen, once-again reliable seasons from their core three position players, and at least league average seasons from rookies and players hoping to bounce back. The Rockies can compete for the postseason if one or two of those things don’t turn out as expected, but given how competitive the NL Wild Card race looks to be, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room.
As of this writing, the formula for success in 2018 will look a bit different in 2019. Namely, two of their three core players, Blackmon and LeMahieu, will enter free agency after 2018. The primary storyline for next offseason will be whether or not those players will be back.
The Rockies do have more than capable replacements for them if they don’t return. Brendan Rodgers is the club’s top prospect. He can either replace LeMahieu at second base or push Story from shortstop to the keystone. And Dahl, if healthy and productive in 2018, is an excellent candidate to take over in center field. The team would probably still be competitive, but the uncertainty starts to show a little more. It’s no sure thing Dahl will ever be as good as Blackmon, and Rodgers could enter the majors anywhere from Carlos Correa good to Dansby Swanson bad.
More significantly, 2019 will be Arenado’s final year under team control. If the Rockies don’t lock him up before the 2019 season starts, he’s likely to test free agency for 2020. The team would be in transition again in light of the potential for major turnover among position players.
That’s not so with the pitching staff. Here’s a sentence that means something right now that can mean something completely different a year from now: The rotation will still largely be in place in 2019. In March 2018, that’s music to the ears of Rockies fans, but it’s necessary to resist the temptation to view prospects, and especially pitching prospects, on a linear path of progress. Matt Harvey went from one of the best to one of the worst pitchers in baseball from ages 24-28. That is not to impose pessimism on to what looks like a quality group of pitchers (and more depth right behind them). It’s simply meant to acknowledge that a year from now pessimism may seem far more natural than it does right now.
The bullpen will also largely be in place as well. Four out of the Rockies’ six payroll commitments in 2019 are for relievers: Davis, Shaw, McGee, and Mike Dunn (the other two commitments are to Iannetta and Desmond). Those contracts, along with buyouts, total $62.65 million. In 2020, it’s three out of four (Davis, Shaw, McGee, and Desmond), and they total $52.25 million in salary commitments.
Those commitments, all from the last two offseasons, also offer cold uncertainty. Right now, we can say for sure that the bullpen will be expensive, but we can’t say for certain that it will be good. But the way the Rockies chose to allocate resources indicates that the team believes their 2018 and 2019 clubs will be competitive enough to need that definitely expensive and hopefully good bullpen.
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There are a lot of good reasons to expect great things for the Rockies in 2018 and beyond. There are also a lot of good reasons to expect to be disappointed. But if expectations and disappointment go hand in hand, so be it. Or, put differently: Cursed is she who expects nothing, for she shall never experience how dang fun it is to follow a baseball season with actual, justified, hope.