Playing Pepper 2014: Colorado Rockies

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Colorado Rockies
74-88, fifth in the NL West

Not much went right for the Rockies last year.  Injuries and their normal pitching woes spoiled what turned out to be the last season of Colorado’s franchise icon.  Though the ending was pretty rough, it’s probably worth noting that as late as the beginning of July, the Rockies were just a couple of games out of first place.

Will they be able to build something there in the thin air?  The Dodgers have spent a lot of money to make that division their personal playpen, but the rest of the teams look fairly competitive with each other, at least.  Can someone pull the surprise and, if so, is that someone the Rockies?

Brian from Purple Row, another one of the SB Nation blogs, was nice enough to give some thought to what the Rockies have done and what the Rockies will do coming up in 2014.  You can follow him over on Twitter @purplerowBK and you can read on to see what he thinks about the team from the Mile High City.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

PR: A solid C. For the first time in several years, the Rockies seemed to realize that they needed to address depth on the big-league roster. Sure, the team has a couple of superstars in the lineup and some nice complementary players, but what good is that when they can’t stay healthy? Trading Dexter Fowler was a headscratcher, but bringing on Drew Stubbs and Brett Anderson were low-risk, high-reward moves. I don’t hate the Justin Morneau signing as much as I once did, but I think the Rockies would have been fine moving Michael Cuddyer to first base and hanging onto Fowler. Or, even if they weren’t going to hang on to Fowler, a Stubbs/Corey Dickerson platoon in right field would have come much cheaper than what Morneau will cost.

I really like what the Rockies have done with their bullpen. They needed a couple of reliable arms and picked up just that in LaTroy Hawkins and Boone Logan. It’s a unit that, by nature, generally gets overworked, so adding a big-time strikeout pitcher and an ageless wonder is going to help take some pressure off the rotation and guys in the bullpen like Matt Belisle, who is remarkably still effective given how much he has been used in recent seasons.

C70: How strange is it going to be to see someone besides Todd Helton at first?

PR: Probably as weird as it was for you when Albert Pujols left St. Louis, but maybe even weirder, considering Helton spent 17 seasons in Denver. It’s going to be a bummer, but it’s not like we haven’t been prepared well for it; the Toddfather appeared in 125 or more games only once in the past six seasons. Helton was still a pretty good defensive first baseman in his later years — certainly better than Morneau, who is roughly eight years younger — so that might actually be the worst part, especially if Morneau doesn’t drastically outproduce the retired Rockies legend on offense.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

PR: Things are really going to get interesting if Jhoulys Chacin‘s shoulder inflammation turns into something serious, but for now, I’ll assume that’s not going to be the case. So, I’ll say the battle for second base between Josh Rutledge and DJ LeMahieu. Rutledge presents the higher offensive upside of the two, but LeMahieu is pretty clearly the better baseball player right now and is infinitely superior as a defender. That defensive value alone is something that can’t be understated for a team whose starting pitchers rely on getting batters to hit the ball on the ground. That said, we’ve seen the type of player Rutledge can be with the bat, and displaying that potential during spring training could give him a realistic opportunity to unseat LeMahieu from the starting job.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

PR: I want to say one of Eddie Butler or Jonathan Gray, but things will either have to be much better (one are both are absolutely dominating at Double-A) or much worse (injuries have decimated the big-league rotation) than expected for them to be in the majors long enough to make a huge impact this season. So, I’m going with Chad Bettis. Bettis was fairly uninspiring in a 44 2/3-inning sample size in 2013, but he’s now a full season removed from a major arm injury, so he should be at full strength heading into camp. And that’s good news for a guy who boasts a mid-90s fastball and has a plus-plus slider to go along with it. He doesn’t offer a whole lot other than that in terms of pitches, so his future might be in the bullpen. That’s totally fine; he has closer potential there and could really give the Rockies a boost late in games, where they’ve often had trouble in the past due to worn down relievers.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

PR: I’m going to chicken out and say 81-81. I think Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez combine for at least 290 games played, and I think that whatever due regression the top three of the pitching staff has will be made up for by an improved bullpen. But, there are a lot of young players on the team and still some holes in the lineup and back-end of the rotation, and I think those things will prevent the team from taking that next step. I also think that a .500 record will be good enough for only a fourth-place finish in the NL West; I have the Dodgers winning, the Padres finishing in second and the D-Backs placing in third. Poor Giants.

Next year. Next year is the one for the Rockies. And (I think) I mean it this time.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

PR: It’s hard to go wrong with either Tulowitzki or Gonzalez. You could even make a case for Nolan Arenado. I’ll go with Tulo. When he’s healthy, he’s a force at the plate and in the field unlike any other player at his position in the game. Tulowitzki isn’t easy to pitch around; he possesses tremendous pitch recognition skills and has a good eye for the strike zone. As a result, you’ll often see him working his way back from 0-2 counts, which the baseball nerd in me LOVES to watch unfold, and it’s also not out of the question for him to deposit a first pitch offering into the stands. In the field, he has impeccable range and a cannon for an arm. Yes, he sometimes makes plays look more difficult than they actually are, but that’s just to please the fans, right? Right?

Gonzalez’s swing, though. And HIS cannon for an arm. And his newfound success on the road … he’s hard to ignore in this category.

I do appreciate Brian giving us his insights on the team in purple.  The Rockies have always been a fun team to watch and it seems like they might make a little noise out west again this season.

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