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What could 2021 have in store for the Rockies?

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Part 1 of 2: The 2021 lineup just lost its best player. What happens now?

In the aftermath of the Nolan Arenado trade, the organizational future has undergone a seismic shift. This is Part 1 in analyzing that future. This focuses on 2021 and Part 2 will look at 2022 and beyond.

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On Feb. 26, 2019, the Rockies future looked so bright. Coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, the Rockies locked in a generational talent third baseman who delights with the glove and smashes the bat. It was a good day to be a Rockies fan.

Flash forward to today and it’s devastating to be a Rockies fan. As Sports Illustrated’s Matt Martell put it: “Years from now, what transpired in the baseball world on Jan. 29, 2021, will be remembered as the Friday Night Heist. The Cardinals held up the aimless Rockies for their best player, made Colorado fork over $50 million to cover their tracks and left behind an undisclosed bundle of mid-tier prospects for their troubles. Pleasure doing business.”

So where do we go from here? What does the Rockies future look like? Obviously, it’s murky with lots of unknowns in terms of the pandemic and what the Opening Day roster might look like. But it also just seems bleak, not only for the 2021 season, but beyond as well.

The 2021 Season

In their press conference on Tuesday, Dick Monfort and Jeff Bridich repeated their greatest-hit phrases Rockies fans have become very used to: this is not a rebuild, players need to step up, and the roster is talented if guys can play to their potential.

“This certainly is not a total tear-down and rebuild,” Bridich said. “There are always parts of your team and organization and group of talent that you have that you are looking to add to and improve on but we believe in so many of the players we have and there are such good parts of this Major League team that are already established and already exist.”

Monfort said he never considered firing Bridich, but in what will be an infamous quote in Rockies history, did say, “I have thought about firing myself.” Um … OK. Well he didn’t do that. I think we would have noticed. So, in other words, no changes in the front office.

However, in Tuesday’s press conference, words like “contenders,” “playoffs,” or “postseason” in association with 2021 never came up. Just in December, Bud Black said the team was still a contender for the postseason. They were a long shot even with Nolan Arenado, but at least the front office isn’t still trying to sell that fantasy.

There are still great parts of the roster for 2021: All-Stars Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story (for now), the trio of Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeman, and Antonio Senzatela, and possible breakout seasons from Raimel Tapia, Josh Fuentes, Ryan McMahon, Brendan Rodgers, and Sam Hilliard. That’s a lot of hopefullies.

In trying to talk about the positives, Monfort talked up the farm system that has produced home-grown pitchers who can succeed at Coors Field, which is no small feat. He believes the Rockies have established this, praising the current pitchers and saying, “we’ve got very good starters.” Yes, three. If Jon Gray can show consistency, maybe four. But you need five right?

The fifth spot is open once again and there will probably need to be a sixth waiting in the wings in case of injuries or performance issues. Ryan Castellani and Chi Chi González are top candidates for the spot with a small dash of hope for Peter Lambert. It’s possible that newly acquired 27-year-old Austin Gomber — the only current Major Leaguer of the five players the Rockies got in exchange for Nolan — could vie for the spot.

Gomber has gone back and forth from a bullpen to rotation in his two seasons in the majors in 2018 and 2020 (he missed all of 2019 by being in the minors or struggling with bicep and shoulder injuries). In 72 23 innings pitched over 15 starts in two years, he has posted a 6-2 record, 3.47 ERA, 1.417 WHIP, and 70 strikeouts with 28 walks. In 31 13 innings of relief, Gomber has a 4.31 ERA, 1.404 WHIP, and 24 strikeouts with 19 walks. The Athletic’s Jim Bowden credits Gomber with four quality pitches, adding “The key to his development was when he was able to turn his cutter into a legitimate slider over the past year or so. …He’s mastered the four-seam fastball at the top of the zone as shown by opponents hitting just .143 against that pitch.” So Gomber could help the pitching staff.

Then there are the offensive struggles that Monfort brought up on Tuesday. “Over the last few years, we were hurting offensively,” he said. “Losing Nolan doesn’t help our offense, I understand that.” Baseball Reference projects Arenado will slash .284/.354/.518 with 28 homers, 25 doubles, 77 runs scored, and 85 RBI. It’s going to be hard to fill that void.

Maybe in a world when the Dodgers and Padres weren’t in the NL West, the Rockies might be OK if everyone steps up like the front office believes they can. While the Rockies might be saving nearly $150 million in future payroll debts, they will still be paying Arenado $15 million of the $50 million they needed to include to get the Cardinals to agree to the deal in 2021 — just to be able to watch him be a Cardinal. So there’s not much in terms of savings that the team can apply to adding players for this season.

Bridich didn’t rule out signing free agents in the remainder of the offseason, but considering José Mujica is the only free agent the Rockies have added on a major league contract over the last two seasons, it would be surprising. There could be more minor league deals, like pitcher Dereck Rodríguez, infielder Chris Owings, catcher José Briceño, and outfielder Connor Joe. The Rockies are on tap to rank No. 18 in MLB payroll in 2021 at just under $90 million, according to Spotrac. The Rockies ranked No. 11 in 2019 and No. 12 in 2020.

Even with Arenado, FanGraphs ranked the Rockies at No. 29 in WAR for 2021. It’s hard to imagine it doesn’t plummet to the basement of the league now. In fact, ESPN has already ranked the Rockies offense as the worst in the league, according to Wednesday’s way-too-early MLB starting lineup rankings.

If the losses start piling up, Story and Gray could be traded, instigating another downward spiral unless the organization can actually get returns that help the current team.

While negotiations between the MLB and the MLB Players Association are rocky, with the MLBPA shooting down every offer the owners’ pitch in terms of starting the season late or having a universal DH in return for expanded playoffs, spring training is still set to start on time. However, Salt River Field ticket sales abruptly stopped on Friday, signaling possible problems. That could just be for fan attendance or it could influence the start of spring training. For now, pitchers and catchers will report on Feb. 16 and the Rockies are scheduled to play their first game on Feb. 27 vs. Arizona. Opening Day is still slated for April 1 with the Rockies hosting the World Series champion Dodgers.

Here’s what that lineup might look like. This is the FanGraphs depth chart, but also what I think we’ll see:

1. Raimel Tapia, LF

2. Trevor Story, SS

3. Charlie Blackmon, RF

4. Ryan McMahon, 3B

5. Josh Fuentes, 1B

6. Sam Hilliard, CF

7. Brendan Rodgers, 2B

8. Elias Díaz, C

9. Gérman Márquez, Opening Day Starter

Rotation: Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, Jon Gray, and Austin Gomber

So with all of that in mind, how is everyone feeling about 2021? Will hope spring eternal? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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