The 2019 Rockies have taken shape, and I’m excited. I’ve predicted a 93-win season, and I think they can win the West. (Frankly, it’s probably their best chance to make the post-season.) Here’s why I’m optimistic, both because of on-field factors, as well as more philosophical reasons.
1. The core of this team remains intact from 2017 and 2018
Four players have moved on (Carlos González, DJ LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, and Gerardo Parra), but Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story play on in purple. Equally important, the starting pitchers are back. This mix has worked for the last two years, and I think it will work again.
2. The Rockies addressed their problems
It turns out, the negative-run differential we talked about in 2018 mattered. The Rockies have attempted to address their offensive deficiency. They signed Daniel Murphy, who appears ideally suited to rake at Coors, and Raimel Tapia, Ryan McMahon, and Garrett Hampson have benefited from another year of seasoning. I didn’t think the Rockies could replace LeMahieu, but it appears they have. (I expect Garrett Hampson to make himself an essential player very quickly.)
The hiring of Dave Magadan underscores the Rockies’ quest for a different offensive approach, which is an additional advantage of signing hitting savant Murphy. In Spring Training, Ian Desmond and Tony Wolters look better at the plate. Yes, the stats don’t matter, but this team has been better at bringing home runners — a contrast to 2017 and 2018, when the Rockies ranked 25th in terms of wRC+ with runners in scoring position. I suspect negative-run differential comments will be a thing of the past (and I’m okay with that).
3. The catching situation is fine
I’ve written about this before, and I know it’s not a popular opinion, but Chris Iannetta and Wolters are fine. They have shown they work well with this pitching staff, and Jeff Bridich and Bud Black have been clear that they see the catcher position as primarily defensive. The signing of Drew Butera to a minor league contract is in character with Black’s tendency to have an experienced catcher ready to step in. They will (probably) not rake, but they will be solid defensemen.
4. The bullpen will be fine
Scott Oberg is ready to fill Ottavino’s place in the 8th inning, and Mike Dunn appears to be back. Add Wade Davis, Seunghwan Oh, and DJ Johnson, and the backend of the bullpen is set. Then there are the X factors: Carlos Estévez, Yency Almonte, Harrison Musgrave, and Chris Rusin. Add to that the two pitchers everyone worries about: Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee. (I’m cautiously optimistic about Shaw.) Bud Black will not suffer bad pitching — even if those pitchers are well paid. He’s got other options, and if the Rockies thought they needed Ottavino to win, they would have tried to keep him in Colorado. (The Rockies’ decision to trade for Phillip Diehl, a Kyle Freeland University of Evansville teammate, is not a coincidence.)
By the way, Justin Lawrence is just exciting. I’d love to see him rolling into Coors around September 1 and release the kracken.
Now to my more philosophical reasons for optimism.
5. This is a smarter team than it was a year ago
Here’s Jeff Bridich talking to Jake Shapiro prior to the 2018 NLDS about what he’s learned:
I think the biggest thing I’ve personally learned is just how much work and how many people are involved in what goes on to take us where we were four or five years ago to where we are now. We’ve had to had so much work and a little bit of luck along the way and things have been working. . . . It’s not like we’ve figured everything out, there are always going to be things to learn and there are always things to get better and we have unfinished business here.
Addressing offensive problems shows Bridich acting on what he learned. Writers who cover the Rockies have stressed that Bridich wants a mix of experienced players with a history of winning (e.g., Davis, Murphy, Matt Holliday) to help teach the Rockies’ younger, homegrown talent. After two years of experiencing the post-season, those younger players now have their own experience to draw on. The last week of the 2018 season followed by a nerve-wracking Game 163 and then a humbling NLDS against the Brewers gave this team experience that’s going to matter in 2019.
Charlie Blackmon, a true student of the game, had his own realization. As Nick Groke writes, “It’s a different mentality . . . . When you play that one-game playoff or get to the division series, every game is so important. We need to bring that into the regular season and make those leveraged at-bats really count and be better with runners on base or with two outs and a guy on third. So when we do make it to the playoffs, we’re ready and prepared and we’re where we need to be mentally.”
The Rockies’ performance in spring training suggests the team has taken this to heart.
6. The plan is working
I’ve written about the Rockies’ plan before (grow your own players; trade carefully to fill gaps; never forget that good pitching is essential to winning). Moreover, in a time of tanking, the Rockies are (responsibly) expanding their payroll.
Last year, we not only saw the plan in action, but we got a better sense of how Black implements it. He and Iannetta were clear in articulating the Rockies’ philosophy: Don’t get too hot; don’t get too cold; stay around .500 and be ready to jump on the hot streak. Addressing the offensive problems should make that easier to achieve.
7. This team (finally) knows who it is
Last year, in an improbable turn, pitching saved the Rockies, a team forever burdened with the presumption of offense and the weight of hitting at Coors. Not in 2018. This was a year of the Rockies trying to find their identity.
They appear to have been successful. Here’s how Groke put it in a recent online discussion: “And how do they feel about themselves? I don’t see the swagger of a team like the Dodgers who have won the division six years in a row. I see a team that knows who they are. It’s not a lack of confidence. It’s more like a quiet duty. They are good enough to win the West, but new enough to that idea that they have a lot to prove still.”
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot
That’s how I see the 2019 Rockies, and I like their odds.