2014 Season Preview: Colorado Rockies

It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air. 

With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fare in 2014, division-by-division. 

National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks / Colorado Rockies (74-88 last season)

Starting Line-Up

C: Wilin Rosario (25) – 121 games, .292/.315/.486, 21HR 79RBI, 63 runs, 22 doubles, 105 OPS+, 2.3 bWAR

1B: Justin Morneau (32) – 152 games, .259/.323/.411, 17HR 77RBI, 62 runs, 36 doubles, 103 OPS+, 2.0 bWAR (w/ Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates)

2B: D.J. LeMahieu (25) – 109 games, .280/.311/.361, 2HR 28RBI, 39 runs, 21 doubles, 18 stolen bases, 75 OPS+, 1.4 bWAR

3B: Nolan Arenado (22) – 133 games, .267/.301/.405, 10HR 52RBI, 49 runs, 29 doubles, 82 OPS+, 3.9 bWAR - Gold Glove winner, 7th in NL ROY voting

SS: Troy Tulowitzki (29) – 126 games, .312/.391/.540, 25HR 82RBI, 72 runs, 27 doubles, 140 OPS+, 5.3 bWAR - 2013 All-Star, 17th in NL MVP voting

LF: Carlos Gonzalez (28) – 110 games, .302/.367/.591, 26HR 70RBI, 72 runs, 23 doubles, 21 stolen bases, 144 OPS+, 4.9 bWAR - 2013 All-Star, Gold Glove winner

CF: Corey Dickerson (24) – 69 games, .263/.316/.459, 5HR 17RBI, 32 runs, 13 doubles, 5 triples, 99 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR

RF: Michael Cuddyer (35) – 130 games, .331/.389/.530, 20HR 84RBI, 74 runs, 31 doubles, 10 stolen bases, 137 OPS+, 2.0 bWAR - 2013 All-Star, Silver Slugger, 20th in NL MVP voting

Troy+Tulowitzki+San+Diego+Padres+v+Colorado+BO_K7gKHJ-DlGood News:

However you decide to slice it, any line-up is strong when you have a healthy Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in the middle of everything.

Troy Tulowitzki is in the middle of establishing himself as one of the best all-around shortstops the game of baseball has ever seen in its history. He’s already racked up five seasons of a 5.0+ fWAR, and two of those five seasons he’s accumulated a 5.0+ fWAR in less than 125 games. He’s a multi-dimensional player that provides the best pure power of any shortstop in the game today and strong glove. He posted a 7.6 UZR/150 and a .229 ISO in 2013. When he’s healthy, he has no comparison in the league today, and you mention his name in elite company when looking at the history of the game as a whole.

While Carlos Gonzalez isn’t as good a defender as Tulo is, he may be a more dynamic offensive player. He’s already won a batting title, and routinely hits over .300 with 20+ homer, 20+ stolen base numbers year in and year out. Before injuries derailed his 2013 season, Gonzalez was in the midst of a career-best power campaign, already racking up 26 home runs and 21 stolen bases in just 110 games, and posting a ridiculous .289 ISO along the way. Even with his game limitations, he was a 4.9 fWAR. CarGo even started to find a comfort in left field, seeing his best UZR/150 in any outfield position since 2011 playing as a full-time left fielder. When CarGo and Tulo are both healthy, you have two players that will combine to hit 60+ home runs, both hit .300 or better and player average or better defense, one of which in a critical defensive position (shortstop). No line-up provides that type of 1-2 punch in the National League.

It’s not just the CarGo and Tulo Show, though. The team brought back last year’s National League batting champion Michael Cuddyer and have young power-hitting catcher Wilin Rosario emerging as one of the best offensive backstops in the league. And while fans will certainly miss Todd Helton‘s presence on the team after his retirement, bringing in Justin Morneau to play first everyday is a significant upgrade, both offensively and defensively. The team will also have a full season of Nolan Arenado, who’s potentially the Andrelton Simmons of third baseman. If Arenado can live up to his 20-25 home run potential he flashed in the Minor Leagues, having him and Tulo on the left side of the infield for the foreseeable future will be the strongest left side of the infield in the Majors.

Carlos Gonzalez, Tom RunnellsBad News:

I mentioned it in the top, but this is where it needs to be expanded on. Not only did injuries decimate the Rockies line-up last year, but it’s been a recurring problem for the team. Only once in CarGo’s career has he appeared in more than 140 games, and he’s never broken the 150 plateau. His injuries haven’t been limited to one specific area either, suffering maladies with his wrist, his knee and other areas of concern. Tulo hasn’t played in more than 140 games since 2011, suffering serious injuries each of the last two seasons that have limited him to 173 of the Rockies 324 possible games. The Rockies line-up can be sustained by missing one, though very much so hurt. However, the team’s problem is that they’ve missed both for significant chunks of time, at the same time. That’s crippling, any way you slice it up.

Yes, Michael Cuddyer is the reigning NL batting champion. No, he’s not likely to do it again. Cuddyer’s career-high .331 batting average was the first time in his career he finished a season with a batting average above .290, and it was largely supported by an unsustainable .382 BABIP. A more reasonable expectation for Cuddyer next year would be his 2011 slash line with the Minnesota Twins, when he posted a .284/.346/.459 and 2.6 fWAR. Even with that triple-slash, I don’t anticipate Cuddyer being more than a 2.0-win player, because he’ll be playing out of position defensively and will be a huge liability. Cuddyer was a -18.9 UZR/150 last year, which is Lucas Duda bad, except in right field instead of left. Cuddyer won the batting title last year and posted a 140 wRC+, yet was only a 2.5 fWAR because of his glove. He’d have to sustain his offensive pace from 2013 to justify his bad defense and keep his value where it is, and there is no metric that indicates Cuddyer is capable of repeating his 2013 campaign at age-35.

Injuries can’t be predicted. It’s very possible that both Tulo and CarGo get through the 2014 season unscathed, but it’s also equally unlikely. Improved production from Arenado/Morneau at the corner infield spots will help mitigate whatever fall-off Cuddyer experiences. No Dexter Fowler won’t hurt nearly as much as you would think on paper (his 2.2 fWAR last year is actually only a few tenths better than the Dickerson/Stubbs combination the Rockies plan on using this year).

If injuries weren’t a concern for the Rockies (or at least no more of a concern than they are for an average team), this would be a stout line-up from top to bottom. But, we’re dealing with two star players with long injury histories. It’s more of a concern for Colorado than other teams, and that’s always going to be the case as long as we’re talking about Tulo/CarGo.

Bench: 

C/1B Jordan Pacheco (28) – 95 games, .239/.276/.312, 1HR 22RBI, 23 runs, 15 doubles, 53 OPS+, -1.6 bWAR

IF Ryan Wheeler (25) – 28 games, .220/.238/.268, 0HR 7RBI, 1 run, 2 doubles, 32 OPS+, -0.8 bWAR

IF Josh Rutledge (24) – 88 games, .235/.294/.337, 7HR 19RBI, 45 runs, 6 doubles, 12 stolen bases, 64 OPS+, -0.6 bWAR

OF Brandon Barnes (27) – 136 games, .240/.289/.346, 8HR 41RBI, 46 runs, 17 doubles, 11 stolen bases, 76 OPS+, 1.7 bWAR (w/ Houston Astros)

OF Drew Stubbs (29) – 146 games, .233/.305/.360, 10HR 45RBI, 59 runs, 21 doubles, 17 stolen bases, 90 OPS+, 0.6 bWAR (w/ Cleveland Indians)

Skinny:

We’ve brought up the name Drew Stubbs once, so I will add here that the team expects him to be the lefty-hitting half of their center field platoon, which is a perfect situation for him at this time. He’s struggled when he’s been exposed to opposing pitchers on a daily basis, so limiting the options he faces and giving him only four or so starts a week should help maximize his production. Josh Rutledge is as good a utility option as any team has on their bench, with the potential to be a full-time starter should another injury crop up. Jordan Pacheco wasn’t good last year in any regard, but he does have the flexibility to play the corner infield positions on top of catching, and there’s inherent value in that. It might not be the best bench in the National League West, but it’s a perfectly fine bench that covers all the holes the Rockies could potentially have.

Starting Rotation:

Ace: Jorge De La Rosa (32) – 30 starts, 16-6, 3.49 ERA, 167.2 IP, 6.0 K/9, 1.81 K/BB, 1.38 WHIP, 127 ERA+, 4.3 bWAR

#2: Jhoulys Chacin (26) – 31 starts, 14-10, 3.47 ERA, 197.1 IP, 5.7 K/9, 2.07 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP, 127 ERA+, 5.8 bWAR

#3: Brett Anderson (26) – 5 starts, 1-4, 6.04 ERA, 44.2 IP, 9.3 K/9, 2.19 K/BB, 1.61 WHIP, 62 ERA+, -0.8 bWAR (w/ Oakland A’s)

#4: Tyler Chatwood (24) – 20 starts, 8-5, 3.15 ERA, 111.1 IP, 5.3 K/9, 1.61 K/BB, 1.43 WHIP, 140 ERA+, 3.4 bWAR

#5: Franklin Morales (28) – 1 start (20 games), 2-2, 4.62 ERA, 25.1 IP, 7.5 K/9, 1.40 K/BB, 1.54 WHIP, 90 ERA+, -0.1 bWAR (w/ Boston Red Sox)

Jorge+De+La+Rosa+San+Francisco+Giants+v+Colorado+aMWN_aVIceElGood News:

You can include me in the group that didn’t realize how strong a season both Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin had for the Colorado Rockies last year.

De La Rosa was working his way back from major surgery that seemingly derailed his career, not throwing more than 120 innings in any season since 2010, and only threw 69.2 total innings over a two-year period from 2011-12. Despite his strikeout numbers being much lower than his career averages (6.0 K/9 last year vs. 7.6 K/9 for his career), De La Rosa put up a 3.49 ERA and 3.76 FIP. Considering he calls Coors Field home (not just a mile high where the ball has more carry, but equally important to point out how spacious their outfield is, making balls in the gap much harder to play), both those figures are strong. In order for De La Rosa to maintain that success, he will need his strikeout rates to improve back towards his career averages, which shouldn’t be asking for too much now that he’s an additional year removed from surgery. Three times in his career, De La Rosa has been a 2.0+ fWAR pitcher, and the Rockies will certainly need him to at least hit that mark if they want to compete in the division.

Chacin has already experienced some serious shoulder problems in Spring Training, so there’s a chance that all the nice things I’m about to say of him will become null and void before the season even starts. When he’s healthy (this is pretty much the Rockies 2014 slogan), Chacin is a quietly underrated pitcher. He posted a 4.3 fWAR last year, and matched De La Rosa’s 3.47 ERA and bettered him with a 3.47 FIP. He doesn’t allow many home runs, which has been a rarity for the Rockies pitching staff throughout the years, and last year did a much better job of limiting his walks. Before people write off Chacin’s strong 2013 as unsustainable, remember that twice he’s been a 2.5+ fWAR pitcher, and was a 3.1 fWAR in 2010. I’m more willing to buy into Chacin reaching his potential at the right time than I am comfortable saying he’s going to see significant regression next season. Of course, if he’s healthy.

Brett Anderson is the type of pitcher the Rockies have to take chances with. When he’s healthy (Jesus, I promise I’m not trolling), Anderson is a high-strikeout, ground ball-inducing starter that suits perfectly to the Rockies strong infield defense. It seems like forever ago that Anderson was a 3.6 fWAR in 2009, posting a 3.69 FIP and 3.56 xFIP for the A’s. The Rockies will need that type of production from Anderson to have a chance in the division this year.

And if the Diamondbacks are excited about Archie Bradley, the Rockies are more excited about their dueling arms, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray. Gray was the team’s first round pick in 2013 and third overall, viewed as the best high school arm available in the draft. Scouts had his fastball clocked at hitting 100 MPH at certain times during the spring, and he dazzled in his brief nine-start debut, striking out 51 in 37.1 innings pitched. He’s a solid two years away from being ready to anchor the Rockies rotation, but Butler is much closer. While Butler isn’t slated to make his debut in 2014, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. He doesn’t have the raw talent Gray does, but he’s over-matched hitters at every level he’s pitched in. He has a fastball that can be considered plus, plus both a slider and change-up that are, at worst, above average. He needs to work a little more on his control, but he isn’t as wild as, say, Gio Gonzalez. Both will certainly bolster the upper-half of the Rockies rotation, and are critical to the team’s long-term plans.

Colorado Rockies lose 8-3 to the Tampa Bay RaysBad News:

I’m beginning to feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but seriously, no team in baseball has to worry about injuries as much as the Colorado Rockies do to their top players. Chacin is already questionable for the start of the season. Brett Anderson hasn’t even made as many as 10 starts in a season in two years. Jorge De La Rosa has had his long list of shoulder issues as well. Those don’t just disappear. The Rockies need a lot of things to go right in order for them to be competitive, and they also need a substantial amount of luck for all their players to remain healthy.

Even with Chacin in this rotation, I’d be worried about the depth of the rotation as a whole. If I say I’m worried about the five starters the Diamondbacks are putting out this season because of a lack of a true #1, then I’m even more worried about the Rockies. Chacin proved last year that he has the ability to fill a top-two rotation spot, and De La Rosa has done so in the past. Tyler Chatwood is a nice arm for rotational depth, and a solid #4 or #5 in almost any rotation, but if Chacin is unavailable, it’ll add more responsibilities to the entire rotation. Gray and Butler aren’t ready yet to make the difference needed if the team loses a starter or two to injury, and we’ve seen how the Rockies rotation has crumpled each of the last two years.

With health, an argument could still be made that the Rockies have the weakest of the five rotations in the National League West. The Diamondbacks may not have a true ace, but they have five quality starters, some with potential to grow into more. The Padres have young pitching busting out of the seams. And we know what the Dodgers and the Giants have to offer every day of the week. I think the Rockies are on the right track, developing as many arms as they can to pitch at Coors Field. We just may not see that work pay off in 2014, and that’s going to hurt the team in the short term.

Bullpen:

Closer: LaTroy Hawkins (41) – 72 games, 3-2, 2.93 ERA, 70.2 IP, 13 saves, 7.0 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP, 122 ERA+ (w/ New York Mets)

Set-Up Man: Rex Brothers (26) – 72 games, 2-1, 1.74 ERA, 67.1 IP, 19 saves, 12 holds, 10.2 K/9, 2.11 K/BB, 1.29 WHIP, 255 ERA+

MR: Matt Belisle (33) – 72 games, 5-7, 4.32 ERA, 73.0 IP, 24 holds, 7.6 K/9, 4.13 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP, 103 ERA+

MR: Adam Ottavino (28) – 51 games, 1-3, 2.64 ERA, 78.1 IP, 8 holds, 9.0 K/9, 2.52 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP, 168 ERA+

MR: Boone Logan (29) – 61 games, 5-2, 3.23 ERA, 39.0 IP, 11 holds, 11.5 K/9, 3.85 K/BB, 1.18 WHIP, 126 ERA+ (w/ New York Yankees)

MR: Wilton Lopez (30) – 75 games, 3-4, 4.06 ERA, 75.1 IP, 8 holds, 5.7 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 1.41 WHIP, 109 ERA+

LR: Rob Scahill (27) – 23 games, 1-0, 5.13 ERA, 33.1 IP, 1 hold, 5.4 K/9, 2.22 K/BB, 1.47 WHIP, 87 ERA+

Skinny:

Not necessarily how I would build a bullpen, but then again, who’s to say this group of misfits can’t come together and form a strong unit? I witnessed LaTroy Hawkins first hand last year with the Mets and came away impressed. He definitely still has plenty left in the tank, and serves as an extension of the coaching staff to some of the younger pitchers both in the bullpen and even the starting rotation, which is invaluable. Rex Brothers continues to impress in his development as one of the best lefty relievers in the game, and he may be the closer by the end of the season. You don’t have to worry about lefty/righty match-ups with him either, which make him indispensable.

As for the rest, if the Rockies fall out of the playoff race early in the season, they have options that other teams will want. Boone Logan is a solid situational lefty contenders will find value in, and both Matt Belisle and Adam Ottavino could find themselves in trade discussions come mid-season as well. It’s not like the Rockies will be able to add immediate impact talent in a trade for a reliever, but it’ll help them build organizational depth, which is the goal for any team selling at the deadline.

Top 10 Prospects (MLB.com)

1. RHP Jonathan Gray

2. OF David Dahl

3. RHP Eddie Butler

4. SS Rosell Herrera

5. LHP Tyler Anderson

6. C Tom Murphy

7. SS Trevor Story

8. RHP Chad Bettis

9. OF Kyle Parker

10. OF Tim Wheeler

Skinny:

We’ve talked at length about Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler, but you’ll notice that there’s actually a name sandwiched between the two on the Rockies top prospect list. That’s David Dahl, the other reason why the Rockies were so comfortable trading away Dexter Fowler. Dahl was the team’s first round pick in 2012, and he already has a strong enough glove to challenge for some gold in center. He also should be able to swipe 25+ stolen bases a year with his speed on the paths. He has some growing to do with the bat, but if he lives up to the scout projections at this time, he’s an annual 20/20 candidate with a sterling glove.

Rosell Herrera was very impressive in his full season Minor League debut in the South Atlantic League, but has at least two years of development to go before he’s ready. Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis are the likeliest of any Rockies pitching prospects to fill in if there becomes a need in the big league rotation, with Anderson arguably being the better of the two. The former 2011 first round pick isn’t viewed to be more than a #3-type starter, but provides the Rockies with depth, something they desperately need given their rotational history.

Season Projection:

It is hard for me to put faith in what the Rockies want to accomplish this year given the enormous amount of question marks that litter the roster. Would anyone be that surprised if Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jhoulys Chacin and Brett Anderson were all on the DL at the same time?

There’s a lot that needs to break just right for the Rockies to make serious noise in the National League this season. Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are elite talents, and they need to stay healthy, or healthy enough to play in 130+ games. Colorado needs Chacin’s shoulder issues to be minor, or not a problem by mid-April. They’ll need another pitcher, either Anderson, De La Rosa or Chatwood, to emerge as a true second banana. They need LaTroy Hawkins to continue his late-career renaissance. And they need a prospect to make a huge splash for them by mid-season.

The National League West this year is stacked up to be much more competitive than it has in the past. The Rockies, as currently constructed, could probably threaten for mid-division status in either the Central or the East. Colorado has the stronger line-up than San Diego, and I think their rotation isn’t significantly worse where it’s a lock to say the Padres will pitch themselves ahead of the Rockies. One of the two will unfortunately finish last in the West.

I’m going to give the Rockies the edge and place them fourth because of having two truly elite talents, despite their injury problems. There’s just so many injury questions in Colorado that I don’t feel comfortable placing them any higher.

Projected Record: 77-85, 4th in National League West