At some point, you realized this was a lost year.
Maybe it happened on July 7, when the Rockies dropped below .500 entering the all-star break. Maybe it was after that, when the team finished July with a 6-19 record. Or maybe it took you until last week, when you learned that “Tim Melville” wasn’t some random seasonal employee at a barbecue joint—or, rather, you learned that “Tim Melville” wasn’t only some random seasonal employee at a barbecue joint.
The Rockies haven’t had a lost year in a while, but in a way, it’s kind of nice. You don’t have to stress about the standings. You get a few more evenings back. You can watch the game, tune out, and then start watching a movie you’ve been meaning to watch instead. While you’re watching the movie, the bullpen still blows the lead, but at least now you’re not tuned in for the misery.
There’s a silver lining to a lost year for a team, too. The hard part about being in the race all the time is that you don’t have much of a chance to let young players mature at the major-league level—or, at least, you don’t think you do. But when stakes are low, opportunities abound. Meaningless major-league games are a valuable resource: you can allow your young players to adjust to big-league competition when it doesn’t matter.
You can also evaluate what you have with borderline prospects, which is particularly hard to do this year. Changes to the ball in Triple-A have turned the Pacific Coast League into a bandbox, rendering performance at that level virtually meaningless. Among qualified hitters in Albuquerque, only Josh Fuentes has a subpar wRC+, and no starting pitcher has an xFIP under 5.00. If you want to know whether Roberto Ramos is another Joe Koshansky or a left-handed Pete Alonso, the only place you’re going to find out is in Denver.
What follows, then, is a list of things to do in the twenty-nine games remaining this season. Player development and evaluation should be the team’s priorities, and while 2019 is lost, 2020 doesn’t have to be. Playing the right cards in September can help the team gather information for the off-season. That, in turn, can help the team re-stock for a bounceback next year.
1. Play Sam Hilliard, Brian Mundell, and Roberto Ramos
In one sense, Hilliard, Ramos, and Mundell are players with very different profiles: Hilliard is an athletic, toolsy outfielder, Mundell is a contact-first corner outfielder and first baseman, and Ramos is a left-handed first-base masher. But in another sense, they’re remarkably similar: all three have one glaring flaw that’s prevented them from becoming top prospects.
Hilliard’s problem is that he doesn’t have a great hit tool. Despite generating plenty of power, he struggles to make contact, hitting .264 this year while striking out a third of the time. Ramos suffers from a similar flaw—he also strikes out too much—and he’s limited to first base, too. Mundell, meanwhile, only hits for contact. In four hundred plate appearances this year, he has yet to reach double-digit home runs, an attribute that doesn’t pair well with his corner infield/first base profile.
In all likelihood, none of them is an impact player, but that’s not the point. Now is the time to expose them to major league pitching, both to figure out if their skills translate and to allow them to adjust when it doesn’t matter. Hilliard’s debut on Tuesday night was a good start. When the rosters expand in September, the Rockies need to call up Mundell and Ramos to join Hilliard in the lineup.
2. Let Yonder Alonso go
A 32-year old veteran gets signed by a new team this off-season and struggles. He gets cut, and a new team picks him up. Suddenly, he’s on fire! He’s effective off the bench, plays with energy, and even starts a new hand-sign from the dugout that really seems to rally the team.
I’m talking, of course, about Gerardo Parra.
Nationals fans think Gerardo Parra is good, but Rockies (and Giants) fans know better. Rockies fans think Yonder Alonso is good, but White Sox (and Indians) fans know better. Alonso’s last month and half with the Rockies has been fun, but it’s just not representative of who he is as a player. Recently, that’s started to become more apparent: Alonso has a wRC+ of 37 in the last two weeks.
More importantly, giving playing time to Alonso is a waste of valuable at-bats. If the team needs a left-handed hitting first-baseman, it should be turning to Ramos, who at least has potential to improve over the remainder of the year. Upside is the name of the game right now, not presence. The Rockies need to move on from the Alonso Experience.
3. Start Jeff Hoffman
I may be one of two remaining members of the Jeff-Hoffman-can-still-be-good group (the other is Jeff Hoffman’s mother), but really, Jeff Hoffman can still be good. His strikeout numbers remain elite. He’s been extremely unlucky this year. There have been very few starts where everything goes right, but when everything goes right, you can still catch a glimpse of his sky-high ceiling.
But you don’t have to agree with me to believe that Hoffman should be starting right now. If upside is the priority, there’s simply no point to starting Chi Chi González over Hoffman. Maybe Jeff Hoffman will always struggle in Colorado. But his stock isn’t going to get any lower, and he’s not learning anything by staying in Albuquerque. The team needs to give him five or six regular starts down the stretch—if he struggles, they’re stuck in the same place, and if he puts it together, they’ve got something to build upon next year.
4. Give bullpen innings to Phillip Diehl, Joe Harvey, James Pazos, Matt Pierpont, Ben Bowden, Yency Almonte, Wes Parsons, and Jesus Tinoco
Whew. That was a lot of names.
I’ll give it to the Rockies—for as bad as the superpen strategy was, the team looks like it’s figuring out how to build a bullpen: invest in a ton of cheap, high-ceiling arms and see who stands out.
Step one is more or less complete. The Rockies 40-man roster is filled with relievers, and there are a few guys not on the 40-man who also deserve a shot (Bowden and arguably Pierpont). Now comes step two. Rather than rely on the veterans in the ‘pen, the Rockies should be handing their games over to a new group of young arms in September.
5. Steal a lot of bases
Stolen bases play less of a role in the game than they used to, but we can all agree on one thing: when the Rockies steal, it’d be better if they did so successfully. This year, the Rockies are the third-worst team in the majors in stolen base percentage (63%), well under the league leaders (the Diamondbacks, at 86%) and far below the break even point that makes stolen bases valuable in the first place (75%).
It really doesn’t matter right now if the Rockies run into outs, so they should do what they do in the minors: steal all the time so they can get better at it. Players like Garrett Hampson and Raimel Tapia have the ability to be elite base-stealers, and if they are, that’s beneficial: the best baserunners in the game add about seven or eight runs through their speed alone. For the rest of the year, the team should simply let them loose. If it saves a pickoff or caught stealing next year, it’s well worth it.
6. Try the opener
Unlike the other items on this list, using the opener now has no direct bearing on the team next year. Still, the Rockies should try it—even if only to break the seal on a strategy that Bud Black seems thoroughly unwilling to try.
Despite the near-ubiquity of the opener, the Rockies have unsurprisingly abstained from using one. Last year, it was because they had fantastic luck with their starting rotation. This year, it’s just because they’re stubborn.
But if the Rockies can find the right guys to open, it’s a strategy that might serve them well. Antonio Senzatela, for instance, seems like an ideal “bulk” candidate, given his lack of secondary pitches and struggles third time through the lineup. Pairing Senzatela with an opener probably gives the team more of a chance to win than asking Senzatela to pitch the first six innings—but the Rockies need to be willing to try an opener first. Getting used to the idea now might make Black less hesitant to use it next year, when an occasional opener might win a game or two for the team.
Losing seasons don’t have to be lost seasons. The Rockies are bad, but being bad also comes with opportunities. The Rockies need to take advantage of those opportunities in the twenty-nine games remaining; doing so has the potential to make an impact next year.