Playing Pepper 2016: Colorado Rockies

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Colorado Rockies
68-94, fifth in the NL West
Last year’s Pepper

The story never seems to change much for the Rockies.  The story lines are always about them needing pitching and, more often than not, them slogging through another iffy season.  Last year was another verse of that old song for the boys in Purple and, given the look of the division, 2016 may be more of the same.

To confirm or deny, we’ve got two Rockies bloggers with us today, both making their Pepper debuts.  Isaac Marks can be found writing over at Rox Pile and co-hosting the AltiTwo podcast.  He’s on Twitter @Ambidextrosity_.  Joining Isaac is Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers, part of the ESPN Sweetspot blog network.  Richard can be found on Twitter @RockiesZingers.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

RP: In short, no. The Rockies needed to sell off and start fresh and they meddled on the fringes of free agency like they have for the past few seasons. GM Jeff Bridich took the first step when he traded Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto, but that’s essentially all that happened. They have a few appealing trade pieces left in Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, Jake McGee and D.J. LeMahieu and still could make a splash, but it’s baffling when they sign a guy like Gerardo Parra and all signs point to the front office believing that the team still has a shot to contend. That might not be the case and Bridich could be building assets to trade off at the trade deadline (optimistic view), but they could also continue the trend of a distorted view of their team and wrongly believe they can contend in a stacked division (pessimistic view). The problem is that we have no idea. Bridich is playing things very close to the chest so this is all really conjecture, but it’s baffling to say the least.

RZ: Everyone thought the Rockies should be able to grab a starter, especially in such a pitching-rich offseason, but even low hanging fruit like Ian Kennedy priced themselves out of range. So it seems the Rockies decided to focus more on defense and their bullpen, primarily pitchers whose fastballs can play both at home and on the road. There is no question that Gerardo Parra will be better than Dickerson defensively, but people are unsure if he’ll be as good as his Gold Glove days. Meanwhile, though they added some decent relievers, a few such as Jason Motte and Chad Qualls usually don’t throw full innings, so though the bullpen has more arms, they still might not have enough innings to compensate for a questionable starting staff. All of this might be moot since there’s a good chance the team will be drastically different by the trading deadline. One thing to notice is the bullpen as a whole has a lot more young veterans with power arms than it has in the past. It’s not the Royals, but you don’t have to squint hard at guys like Jairo Diaz, who could help Jake McGee and, eventually, Adam Ottavino form the core of a very good bullpen.

C70: It’s the first time in a long time that the season starts without Troy Tulowitzki. Will his presence be missed?

RP: It will be strange to not have Tulo in Spring Training after nine years of being at the forefront of the organization, but, for the most part, Rockies nation is on to the next thing; Nolan Arenado. He has a chance to be as good as, maybe better than, Tulo was in Colorado. Health is key – we’ve spent too much time worrying about Tulo’s groin and Carlos Gonzalez’s fingers and knees than what’s considered normal – and if Arenado can stay healthy for the next few years he has a shot to eclipse Tulo. He’s that good.

RZ: Tulowitzki was a mentor to players like LeMahieu and Arenado but his injury track record made it seem like he was always one foot out of the lineup. Most of all, his defense will be missed with Trevor Story perceived as somewhat questionable and Jose Reyes as vitrol mixed with a heavy dose of lackadasical. He was also one of the few Rockies who could produce on the road and the Rockies oddly struggled against left handed pitching so his big right handed bat will be missed. But beyond the numbers, it was General Manager Jeff Bridich’s first big move and everything, from the Reyes fallout to the development of prospects acquired in the trade and use of the payroll in the future, means Tulo’s shadow will linger over the organization for a few more years.

C70: As always with the Rockies, the questions seem to surround pitching. What’s your opinion of the rotation this year?

RP: The rotation will be interesting. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I sincerely think it’ll be much improved in 2016, health pending. Jorge De La Rosa (34) is a solid veteran who can anchor a young rotation of Chad Bettis (26), Jon Gray (24), Tyler Chatwood (26) and Jordan Lyles (26), my projected Opening Day rotation. That’s a rotation without an ace, but a rotation that will keep the Rockies in every game is, sadly, a great thing. Of course, the health pending caveat is key; Chatwood and Lyles are coming off season-ending injuries, De La Rosa always has some minor injury he’s battling and Bettis spend time on the DL last year. We’ll see if they can hold up for most of the season. If they can, they might perform adequately enough to keep the Rockies around .500 for the first time in five years.

RZ: Aside from Jon Gray, it’s basically the same rotation options the Rockies had on Opening Day 2014 when injuries to Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicaso created opportunities for Jordan Lyles and Tyler Chatwood. Jorge De La Rosa usually has a few nagging injuries but ends up fighting through it to quietly post solid numbers. The organization really likes Chad Bettis, who started and ended strong but middled in the middle. Lyles has a habit of starting strong and then getting a fluke injury. Chatwood’s also had issues with health, missing 2012 and 2013 with assorted injuries and all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery but he’s had modest success at Coors. Gray looked outright unhittable and was fun to watch at times, but looked frustrated at other times, perhaps because of the short leash, but he did experience some dips in velocity as the season wore on. If any of the above fail, there’s still a chance Tyler Matzek, Eddie Butler or rookies Kyle Freeland and Jeff Hoffman. It’s a lot of spaghetti being thrown at the wall again, but there’s a better chance that either more will stick, or finally get cut loose.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

RP: The easy answer is Jon Gray. The 2012 first round pick made his debut in 2015 and showed how nasty his stuff can be and that he has a lot left to work on. His fastball control was shaky at times and his slider didn’t have the bite it once had, so he’s someone to keep an eye on. If he can improve in those areas, he’ll be an anchor of the Rockies rotation for the next few years. His mechanics have been tweaked during his time in the organization leading to the changes in his performance, but I hope he can revert back to his form from his Oklahoma days.

RZ: Call me crazy, but I think Nolan Arenado can get even better. Remember that he was a bat-first prospect who couldn’t field. Last year, he showed a power stroke no one expected both at home and on the road, offset by a slight increase in his strikeout rate and an atypically poor performance against left handers. He’s a student of the game and, at only 24, I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a run at a batting title. Think an Aramis Ramirez bat (average and power with low walk and strikeout rates) with Adrian Beltre defense.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

RP: It’s a battle between the Rockies and the San Diego Padres for the 4th spot in the division and I think they win that battle. San Diego is almost as big of a mess as Colorado, but are more willing to sell guys and retool, leading to a late-season drop as their veterans are traded to aid the rebuild and allowing the Rockies to take that fourth spot in the division. The Rockies will finish 71-91.

RZ: This is really hard to call. A lot of it really boils down to Reyes, who some bloggers think won’t see a game in a Rockies uniform. I don’t think the Rockies will be that lucky or smart and expect him to be with the team by the trading deadline. On the other hand, the Rockies had a heck of a time with rain delays last year, with a total of 26 hours of rain delays over 24 games not counting suspended and postponed games. It definitely didn’t help the team get in a rhythm. We also don’t know if Charlie Blackmon or Carlos Gonzalez will be traded at the deadline if Colorado has the rocky start that’s projected. But by August, the farm system should keep bubbling up starting pitching, Reyes should be sorted out (one way or another) as he gives way to Trevor Story, and outfielders like David Dahl and Raimel Tapia should debut. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rockies play like a 70 win team until the deadline and an 80 win team after the deadline. Let’s call it at 74, but I’ve called it high a few years straight for various reasons.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

RP: That’s tough. It’s between the Dodgers and Giants, but I’m going with the Dodgers. They’re the Yankees of the West and it’s great to beat them, but that rotation is nasty. We face them 19 times this year and my heart says 10-9, my mind says 6-13.

RZ: Outside the division, Rockies/Cubs series are always wacky entertaining, especially with all the Chicago transplants living in Denver. Inside the division, the Dodgers not only won 11 of 19 versus the Rockies, but many were games the Rockies had a shot at winning (until Adrian Gonzalez would step up to the plate). The Dodgers should be more vulnerable this year, and it’ll probably be a relief that the Rockies won’t have to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on back to back days, since Greinke’s now a Diamondback. The danger is that, even though the Rockies have quite a bit of talent coming up in their farm system, the Dodgers are also graduating prospects.

I appreciate Isaac and Richard spending the time to talk about their team.  Even if it is another long season, getting to see Arenado play every day is a pretty nice consolation prize!

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