The latest projections released by Fangraphs has the Rockies staring at another season near the bottom of the NL West. But what would it take from the current roster to flip the script and shock MLB with a playoff-worthy performance? While it might not look good on paper, they do still need to play the games...
Using Fangraphs’ WAR as the primary measure of performance, let’s take a look at the potential for each position group to exceed expectations. (Projections refer to Dan Symborski’s ZiPS model.)
The forecast for next season has the starting rotation pegged for a cumulative WAR of 8.5 led by Germán Márquez with 3.8, which is pretty close to his best season in 2018 where he had a WAR of 4.1. If Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela can stay healthy and perform at their best levels from the past few seasons, that would increase the contribution from this group by about five wins. The projection for Ryan Castellani is quite pessimistic (-0.8 WAR), but if the Rockies can manage to earn an even zero wins from the fifth starter, that would yield an improvement of around 6.5 wins total for the rotation.
It’s tempting to skip this element of the team as it’s difficult to come up with a favorable assessment. The forecasted value placed on the bullpen by WAR is 2.2, which is a steep rise (and quite optimistic) from 2020 (cumulative RP WAR of -0.6). Despite Daniel Bard’s incredible comeback season, it was still a terrible year for the bullpen. In fact, it marks the fifth year in a row that the cumulative relief pitching WAR has dropped.
There are a lot of “what if” scenarios to play out in the bullpen, but if Bard can perform like he did in 2020 and Scott Oberg and Mychal Givens can return to form, it’s feasible that relief pitchers could combine for three WAR by season’s end.
The catching duo next season is expected to comprise of Elias Díaz and Dom Nuñez, neither of whom have a ton of history at the MLB level. In his best season with the Pirates, Díaz played in 82 games and finished the season with a WAR of 1.8. If he can repeat that in 2021, and Nuñez can net 0.5 wins as his replacement, that would be a net gain of 2.3 WAR over the ZiPS projection.
The Rockies greatest strength is the left side of their infield, but the ZiPS is probably a bit conservative with its projections for Arenado and Story — two elite players in their prime — at 4.1 wins apiece (ZiPS has a history of underrating these two). If they play to their potential they could both hit six wins in their best season. The best case scenario at second base is that either Ryan McMahon or Brendan Rodgers breaks out and has a big season somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 wins. At first base, Josh Fuentes had an excellent 2020 season, and prorating his performance in 30 games over a full season would put him at about two wins for the season. All together if these scenarios play out the infield could add about seven wins on top of the projection.
Charlie Blackmon is aging, of course, but he can still hit the ball really hard. His career best season by WAR was 2017 where he reached 6.6, but even in this overly optimistic hypothetical scenario that’s probably not a realistic number for 2021. He did, however, hit .500 for a good stretch in 2020 and to replicate his 2018 season with a WAR of 2.8 is a possible outcome. Raimel Tapia, similar to Fuentes, had a really nice 2020 season and if he’s able to perform on that level for the whole of 2021, he would be close to a two-win player. It’s unclear who will play center field, but Sam Hilliard has shown flashes of power and speed and if he’s able to perform consistently could reach the two-win plateau as well. Pool these performances together and the outfield could outperform the projections by four to five wins.
If all the ideal performances play out, the Rockies could shock MLB and win 22 to 23 more games than ZiPS (and likely most) models project them to. Of course, it’s very unlikely that all these outcomes become true, but it’s not impossible.
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Renee Dechert brilliantly summarizes the current state of the Rockies organization pointing out some revealing news pieces from the last few weeks. She hits on the latest positional projections by Fangraphs, messaging from the team owner Dick Monfort, the dearth of talent in the farm system, and the recent departures from the team’s research and development department. She ends the article by saying “given that they lack both the philosophy and the technology to undertake a successful rebuild, I believe they should make a run in 2021” which may have motivated some of my writing today.
Kenny Kelly of Beyond the Box Score laid out an argument against trading either of the Rockies two best hitters. There has been substantial buzz surrounding trade conversations involving Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story given the team’s stated financial situation following the 2020 season, but Kelly warns that losing one or both superstar players could be devastating to in-game attendance when it is safe to resume. Furthermore, the front office hasn’t had a great track record in its recent trade history. He argues that as long as there is a non-zero chance that either stays in a Rockies uniform, it is best for the team to keep them around.
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