Are we in the midst of the golden age of Colorado Rockies baseball? There sure is a little bit of a “never been better sense” surrounding the team. They have a great young crop of pitchers that form the best rotation in team history. Any of the top are capable of sucking up oxygen with “ace debates,” the oldest of which is 27. They have a perennial MVP candidate, as well as a number of other players who seem to enter that conversation in different years. They have a manager who seems to be a perfect fit for where the team is at — a pitcher-minded manager mellow enough for the young group, but who maintains high performance standards. They’ve made the postseason for the past two seasons, which is something no other Rockies team has done. And in 2018, they were a tiebreaker away from winning the National League West for the first time ever.
The only other period in team history that could compare is the 2007-2010 seasons. But those years never really felt all that golden in a “it’s harder to imagine this team losing than winning” type of way. Part of that may have been contextual, as the 2007 and 2009 playoff teams both got off to slow starts to the season, and both were preceded by sub-80 win seasons. After the World Series season of 2007, when hope ran high, the team struggled with injuries and limped to a 74-88 record. In a cruel twist that seems to happen more often than it should, the Dodgers played mediocre ball in 2008, but they took the division with 84 wins. Optimism may have been highest after the 92 win 2009 team. It was nearly justified. In 2010, the Rockies played well for most of the year. But this era of Rockies baseball ended with a September collapse. It was the clear by the end of May 2011 that the team was in need of a rebuild.
It feels different now. Perhaps it’s recency bias, but it sure seems like the Rockies have never been in a better position for sustained success. Here’s what the team looks like in 2019, as well as a few ways the season could turn out.
Daniel Murphy, 1B
Mark Reynolds, 1B/PH
Murphy, who turns 34 on April 1, has the chance to be an extremely impactful free agent acquisition. The Rockies have had 11 batting champions in their 26 seasons of play. If they make it 12 in 27 in 2019, my money is on the left-handed Murphy being the one to do it. The Rockies signed him to play first base, and by doing so he’s both an addition by addition, and also an addition by subtraction because he’s going to displace Ian Desmond to center field, where he’s a better fit.
The other free agent acquisition is Reynolds, who played from the Rockies during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. The right-handed Reynolds should be firmly in a backup role, though he’ll probably get a lot of starts at first base against left-handed starters.
The Rockies saw the departure of two significant contributors: DJ LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino (both are now members of the Yankees). The loss of both of them will hurt, but they aren’t leaving behind black holes where their productivity once was. LeMahieu was the best second basemen the team has ever had. In his place, the Rockies will go with the two-headed beast of Ryan McMahon and Garrett Hampson. Together, they bring different skills than LeMahieu did alone. Both are solid defensively, even if they fall short of LeMahieu when he was at his best, but McMahon has a higher offensive ceiling. Hampson, for his part, offers multi-position flexibility. That, and he’s really fast, so he should be a contributor on the base paths as well.
The bullpen is well positioned to handle Ottavino’s departure as well. In general, if the starting rotation is giving the team length, a team needs three reliable relievers. The Rockies should have that in Scott Oberg (who, somewhat quietly, was every bit as good as Ottavino in 2018), Seunghwan Oh, and Wade Davis. They also have relievers who were down and out in 2018, but who have the potential to rediscover the same productivity that made them attractive to the Rockies in the first place.
Probable Opening Day rotation
Kyle Freeland, LHP
German Márquez, RHP
Jon Gray, RHP
Tyler Anderson, LHP
Chad Bettis, RHP
Have a conversation with a baseball fan who doesn’t pay that much attention to the Rockies, and you might get this question: “Sure, but can they pitch?” Not only is the answer yes, but the success of the 2019 season, like the success the team saw in 2018, mostly relies on the fulfilled potential of the starting rotation. Freeland is coming off of the best pitcher season in team history. While it may be too much to expect a repeat, the reasons for the success — a refined delivery and the dramatic improvement of his slider — indicate that we can expect him to be very good. At 24, Márquez is the youngest of the group, and he also may end up being the best. After a weird season in which the results did not match up with the peripherals, meaning a poor ERA but a lot of strikeouts and not many walks, Jon Gray has the potential to be the crucial piece that turns a really good rotation into an excellent one.
Probable Opening Day bullpen
Wade Davis, CL
Scott Oberg, Setup
Seunghwan Oh, Setup
Bryan Shaw, Middle
Jake McGee, Middle
Mike Dunn, Middle
Antonio Senzatela, Long
Chris Rusin, Long
The Rockies will likely have a lot more than this group throwing out of the bullpen. We can add the aforementioned Lawrence, Johnson, Estévez, González, and Almonte. The success of a major league bullpen is often tied directly to the success of the rotation. As long as the starting five perform as expected, the bullpen has enough talent to close out wins.
Probable Opening Day lineup
- Charlie Blackmon, RF
- Nolan Arenado, 3B
- Daniel Murphy, 1B
- Trevor Story, SS
- David Dahl, LF
- Ian Desmond, CF
- Ryan McMahon, 2B
- Chris Iannetta, C
For much of 2018, the Rockies struggled mightily on offense. As I look at this lineup, I don’t see it as the weakness it was in 2018, and a lot of that as to do with the addition of Murphy. He may be exactly what the team needed to create an offense to balance the excellent pitching. A full and productive season from David Dahl and solid contributions from second base would make this a legitimately potent lineup.
Catcher could still be a question mark, and if I had to wager on a place for the team to make a mid-season upgrade, it would be there. Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy will backup Iannetta. They’re all good defensive catchers familiar with the pitching staff, but we don’t know whether or not Murphy can hit major league pitching enough to justify too much playing time, and we know Wolters can’t. If the catching corps ends up being a major weakness, not making a big enough play for Yasmani Grandal may end up looking like one of the biggest missed opportunities of the offseason.
If everything breaks right
The Rockies path to success in 2019 is pretty straightforward. It begins with the health and continued productivity of the rotation. In 2018, the Rockies only used six starting pitchers, (excluding Jeff Hoffman’s one spot start). Four of those six pitchers started more than 30 games (Freeland, Márquez, Gray, and Anderson). While it may be fairly obvious, the health of the pitching staff will be crucial. If one or more of the pitchers go down, the Rockies will need to call on Jeff Hoffman, who has never quite figured out major league hitters, and possibly top pitching prospect Peter Lambert. They also have the option of stretching Yency Almonte out, but he may be a more impactful bullpen arm. I love Lambert and Almonte, but if everything goes right for the Rockies in 2019, they won’t need them.
Besides the three relievers who should be reliable, Davis, Oberg, and Oh, the Rockies have bounce back candidates and a group of high-octane youngsters in the bullpen. Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Mike Dunn are in the first group, and Carlos Estévez, Ryan González, Yency Almonte, DJ Johnson, and Justin Lawrence are in the second. You’ll know things are going right if reliables remain reliable and 2-3 of of these 8 relievers emerge as consistent contributors.
A productive Dahl, McMahon, and Hampson are all part of the best case scenario for the Rockies, but as Hayden Kane noted here last week, Tom Murphy may be the most significant young difference maker. Rockies fans have a pretty good idea of what a healthy Dahl will contribute, and it’s hard to see McMahon and Hampson combining for anything less than a composite average second baseman. But if Murphy can figure it out at the plate and handle the pitching staff well, it would brighten the outlook of the 2019 season enormously.
If all of these things go right, the Rockies could be looking at a win total in the mid-90s. Whether or not that will be enough to overtake the Dodgers is an open question. The 2018 season presented an excellent opportunity to do so, as Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, and Corey Seager all missed a decent amount of time. For the Rockies to win their first division title, they’ll need a lot to go right for them and at least few things to go wrong for the Dodgers.
If things go wrong
If one or more of the pitchers in the starting rotation are either hurt or decline, it would be a huge blow to the Rockies’ chances. The Rockies should be able to withstand missing one or two for a short period of time, but they’d need to get really lucky in other areas if someone misses a lot of time — for example, a pitching loss happening at the same time as an offensive explosion. Any decline in the rotation would also be felt by the bullpen, as it would make their collective job harder because they’d be called upon to win games more often, which in turn leads to more in-season wear and tear. If the Rockies fail to meet expectations in 2019, it will probably be because something bad happened in the rotation.
Another worst-case scenario is if the offense gets in a situation where it relies too heavily on one person, probably Nolan Arenado. That could be the result of poor luck, everyone going cold at once, but it could also be due to decline or injury. The outfield seems particularly vulnerable in this regard. Expectations have gotten so low for Ian Desmond that a replacement level season from him in center field will feel like a win, and while we have a good idea of what a full season of David Dahl should look like, we haven’t seen it yet because he’s been injury prone. If he goes down, more responsibility would shift to Raimel Tapia, who may be one of the most volatile players on the club. He could hit .330, but he also could hit .280 with a .290 on-base percentage. Beyond him, Noel Cuevas and Mike Tauchman are guys you like to have around without having to rely on them.
There are other ways things could turn sour. A down year from Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story losing some of the gains he made in 2018, or Daniel Murphy either re-aggravating or still not being fully recovered from his 2017 knee surgery are other worst-case scenarios.
The worst case outcome for the Rockies is probably somewhere around 78 wins, which would be a huge disappointment. Again though, the Rockies can withstand a few of these and still be competitive. Because we can’t expect everything to go right, they’ll probably have to deal with one or two of these. Let’s just hope it’s not enough to remind us too much of 2008.
Which brings us back to where we started. Are we in the midst of the golden age of Rockies baseball, and can we legitimately call it a golden age if the Rockies don’t win at least one division title? The ingredients are all there to concretize this period as the never been better era in Rockies history, and they came so tantalizingly close to a division title in 2018 that it’s clearly within reach. There’s still another component of what makes a golden age so golden. Some of it comes down to luck — having more prospect hits than bust, making just the right veteran additions at just the right time (think Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo emerging at the same time for the Cubs, just when they added Jon Lester). In that respect, the Rockies have already been fortunate. It’s evident in the rotation, as well as in Nolan Arenado turning into a Hall of Fame caliber player, which is obviously a rare thing. And maybe Murphy will player the Lester role and provide that little extra to take the team to another level.
It feels like the golden age of Rockies baseball. Now, it’s a matter of having more things go right than wrong, and getting enough of those random, lucky bounces that so often determine losses from wins, and disappointment from the joy of not just seeing something special take place, but knowing beforehand how special it can really be.