It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Rockies during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
Year 1 without Nolan Arenado wasn’t a complete waste but it also came with its own drama, as Trevor Story looked to be traded, thought he was going to be traded, then wasn’t traded. With the Dodgers and Giants tearing things up the Rockies never really were in contention but there were some hopeful moments throughout the season. Will that hope start to pan out? Let’s see what these folks have to tell us!
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Colorado’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Kevin: Colorado’s offseason has gotten much, much better since the lockout ended. The Rockies have made some very smart moves, including trading with Toronto for Randal Grichuk, signing Kris Bryant to a long-term contract, and extending Ryan McMahon to a long-term deal as well. McMahon and Bryant are now the faces of the franchise for the foreseeable future and the Rockies will build around them.
You can certainly tell that this is a new era for the Rockies and Jeff Bridich is no longer the GM.
Justin: Kris Bryant is the headline that has led many to feel positive about Colorado’s offseason, and after losing Trevor Story to free agency, it’s a huge step to show the Rockies are set on remaining competitive. Personally, I’m thrilled about the Bryant deal because it shows the Rockies are trying something new; it had previously been three years since the club spent more than $1 million on a free agent (Daniel Murphy, 2018, two-year, $24 million) and combined with Bryant’s World Series experience, the clubhouse and team landscape could be changing for the better.
Colorado has often favored extensions for existing players (i.e. Charlie Blackmon, Germán Márquez, Antonio Senzatela), but those deals haven’t brought in new perspectives from outside stars (i.e. Bryant). I liken the Bryant deal to the Rockies’ pickup of Larry Walker in 1995; Walker was already established in Montreal and brought something new to Colorado, inevitably helping the Rockies to their first ever postseason appearance. Bryant is willing to believe in the franchise for seven years along a similar path, and if this is truly a Walker-esque deal, perhaps we could see a similar plotline to Cooperstown for the new presumed left fielder.
Few expected Trevor Story to remain in a Rockies uniform after his displayed frustration with the Rockies’ front office. His source of discontent was similar in nature to Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado upon their departures, and while keeping Story would have been great for the on-field product, the team may have never signed Bryant in that situation. After reports that the Giants were interested in Story, it’s a breath of fresh air knowing he won’t compete against the Rockies in the same division.
The most head-scratching news on the Rockies’ front this winter was their unwillingness to make a qualifying offer for starting pitcher Jon Gray, which in turn cost them in draft pick compensation. Gray expressed an interest to remain in Colorado during the final weeks of the 2021 season, but his four-year, $56 million deal with the Rangers seemed to be well out of what the Rockies were willing to spend. Colorado’s preseason farm system ranking is 26 out of 30 according to MLB Pipeline, and that boost in the upcoming draft could help immensely.
I am a big fan of the Rockies’ recent pickup of reliever Alex Colomé from the Twins. While I don’t exactly understand how reliever Daniel Bard is making more money than him, I am excited that Colorado has some late-inning options with different action. Bard throws triple-digit fastballs and sweeping sliders but lost his closer duties in 2021 to Carlos Estévez, a triple-digit arm with more changeups than breaking balls last year. Colomé’s mix is exclusively sinkers and heaters, and while he doesn’t pack the velocity of the other two, he brings a sharp contrast that could anchor some late innings. This could prove vital in a place like Colorado, where thin air can make late innings more volatile.
Patrick: Colorado ended up being a lot more aggressive than I had anticipated. Considering the Daniel Murphy signing in December of 2018 was the last proper free agent signing the club had made – including the month before the lockout began – it seemed reasonable to expect more of the same.
The fractured offseason and abbreviated Spring Training did open the possibilities of some frugal signings by anxious free agents looking to find a home, but it still seemed unlikely based on their track record. Instead, they signed three solid veterans in SS José Iglesias, RHP Alex Colomé and RHP Chad Kuhl. Then came the Kris Bryant signing. And the Randal Grichuk trade.
When considering the Rockies and GM Bill Schmidt have spent nearly $350 million this offseason, one would think that kind of scharole would guarantee a spot in the postseason, especially an expanded postseason. Replacing Trevor Story and Jon Gray with Iglesias, Kuhl, Colomé, Bryant and Grichuk on the 2022 roster seems like an improvement, but not one that could make a 74-win club to an 87-win version.
C70: Which starting pitcher do you have the most confidence in and which do you have the least?
Kevin: German Marquez settled in to become a workhorse for the Rockies. He made the All-Star Game last year (pitching in front of the hometown fans at Coors Field) and nearly threw a no-hitter in Denver as well. Any time he takes the mound, the team exudes confidence, and that starts on Opening Day against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Whoever is the fifth starter is who I will say in the least at the moment. That could well be Chad Kuhl, signed from Pittsburgh in the offseason, but there isn’t really anyone who can step in to take the place of Jon Gray, who signed with Texas in the offseason.
Justin: It is tough to argue against Germán Márquez as the most dependable arm, as he was the only All-Star the Rockies had a year ago. He’s got a fastball/slider mix that I believe plays well at Coors Field, and 2021 was the first season of his career that he actually threw more sliders than curveballs. Assuming the break on his slider stays consistent, this could pay dividends through at least 2023, per his contract. The changing pitch mix suggests he is continually evolving, too. Márquez’s average fastball velocity has not dipped below 94 in all of his six seasons in the league, which projects him in a positive direction. He’s is a proven workhorse that has steadily averaged over 160 innings of work since 2017 — outside of a shortened 2020, where his 81 2/3 innings led the league! — and a leader like this can help a pitching staff as a whole.
My source of least confidence comes from an unknown fifth starter, being that Jon Gray is now in Texas. I initially presumed right-hander Peter Lambert would pencil in, but his work has been limited with Tommy John surgery in 2020, limited work in 2021, and recent signings for pitchers Chad Kuhl and Ty Blach. Lambert allowed seven runs in 5 2/3 innings with the Rockies in 2021, which was an extremely small sample, but it is challenging to feel high confidence after he’s seen so many interruptions to a normal routine. He’s still a projectable arm, and I’m hoping there will be confidence instilled in Lambert just by the Rockies showing belief in him. The deals for Kuhl and Blach can still provide options — a lesson learned from 2021, where Jhoulys Chacín was acquired 24 hours before Opening Day for long-relief help — but I also feel the Rockies could benefit from showing belief in prospects that have greater long-term upside.
For an organization with a bottom-heavy prospect core (in Low-A/High-A), it could pay off to see a young prospect turn into the next Gray or Kyle Freeland. This could be huge in the early stages of the Kris Bryant era.
Patrick: Germán Márquez is undoubtedly the ace of the staff. He’s hoping to turn into a true ace this season. Though he has some lapses on the mound that prevent him from going deeper than two innings, he’s a threat to throw a no-hitter each and every time he takes the ball.
Since Kuhl is the newest member of the rotation, he’ll have the biggest learning curve of the group. While he’s penciled in as the no. 5 starter, the Rockies may only need him to bridge the gap between the time either Peter Lambert or Ryan Rolison are ready to join the rotation during the season.
C70: Who is the position player most likely to lead the team in WAR this season?
Kevin: I expect it to be McMahon. I think he will take a step forward at the plate and keep the high level of defense he has shown stepping in for DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado in his short time in Denver. Once RyMac finds consistency at the plate, he is going to be an All-Star. Mark that down.
Justin: I think anybody will have a tough time arguing against Kris Bryant at this point (myself included), but I wouldn’t rule out Ryan McMahon as a player that could make a serious statement. He was previously set to reach free agency for the first time after 2023, but the Rockies pulled the trigger on an extension for him this month and the reassurance from his franchise is something that could propel his performance. This could anchor the entire batting order with McMahon and Bryant hitting together for years to come. Depending on how Bud Black assembles the starting nine and how opponents pitch around Bryant, it could lead to McMahon seeing better pitches in big situations. I don’t believe McMahon will end the season with better figures than Bryant, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s closer than some people might expect.
Patrick: Ryan McMahon should have the best shot at leading the position players, especially since he’ll help himself greatly on the defensive side. Bryant is the best hitter in the lineup and Rodgers could make the biggest jump, but a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who will build off 20+ home runs and 80+ RBI should produce 4.5 WAR if all goes right for the 27-year-old. Especially if he bats towards the top of the order and gets some healthy lineup protection.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Kevin: The Rockies signed Jose Iglesias as a bridge between the Trevor Story era and what is to come … and that’s Ezequiel Tovar. All of the reports out of Fresno (Low-A) last season and spring training this year say he is on track to follow in the line of Story and Troy Tulowitzki as great Rockies shortstops.
Justin: Zac Veen was the club’s first-round selection in 2020 and he’s shown unreal power at just 20 years old. This is a welcome sight when Coors Field is the projected destination for him, and his plate discipline with Low-A Fresno last year was a continual source of praise. He posted a .901 OPS with the Grizzlies in 2021 and I wouldn’t rule out an expedited path to the big leagues assuming his pitch selection and hitting tools stay the course. It will be exciting to see that pitch selection against Double-A pitching and beyond, and I believe that could be the biggest indicator for how quickly he puts a Rockies uniform on. MLB Pipeline projects Veen’s big league ETA in 2024 and I would agree with that natural path. I anticipate we might see him in the Arizona Fall League either this season or next, which could act as another indicator for his readiness against top-tier pitching.
Ryan Rolison has been waiting in the Triple-A wings for quite some time, and after missing significant time in 2021 with appendicitis, I can’t wait to see his early-season performance. He’s had to fight in the final stage of the minors for extensive time, and this is a guy that could take over a rotation spot and put on a show. (He’s got a crazy curveball that deserves some praise, too.)
Patrick: The Rockies have a lot of exciting prospects in their pipeline right now. Questions still linger about certain aspects of their game – as is common for nearly all minor leaguers – but if everything plays out more positively than not, then Drew Romo provides the most excitement. When he was selected 35th overall in the 2020 MLB Draft, I was skeptical because the track record for high school catchers is not good. The switch-hitting prodigy hit for average last year, mostly from the left side of the plate, and helped Low-A Fresno to a North Division title while leading the pitching staff to the second-lowest club ERA in all of the California League.
He’s already received praise from manager Bud Black and bench coach Mike Redmond during Spring Training. Romo is set to join Zac Veen in High-A Spokane and a promotion to Double-A Hartford late in the season would really be intriguing. His ETA may not be until 2024, but Romo should be worth the wait.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Kevin: With all of their moves, they have an outside shot to make the postseason. I think a .500 season would be a real win for a team that little was expected of before the lockout. The Rockies have to have their starting pitching hold up to make a run at the postseason but, if they can, with the expanded postseason, it’s possible. It may not be a huge possibility, but still possible.
Justin: I’m going to roll with an even .500 win percentage. 81-81. The current gambling lines have the over/under for Rockies wins in the high 60’s, but I think the immediate impact of the Bryant deal could resonate far beyond his one spot in the lineup. A .500 season would be the first non-losing season in four years for the Rockies, but their divisional finish largely depends on what version of the Padres will surface in 2022. The NL West is an extremely challenging division with the ever-elusive Dodgers standing at the top. Their streak of eight consecutive division titles was snapped last year, and it was the Giants — not the free-agent active Padres — that took the 2021 crown. I believe the expectation in San Diego remains strong and should not be dismissed this year, and the Rockies are in a tough spot with three forces standing in their way. Colorado did manage 74 wins last year, however, and I do believe they are a few games stronger than that going into this year.
My confident prediction is that the Dodgers will win the division again (which should surprise few). I then hesitate with any prediction, unknowing of how secure the Giants are in the standings, how the Padres are reassessing after 2021, and how Kris Bryant can change the entire outlook in Colorado. I think the Rockies are good enough to finish third in the division this year and I’ll put a cautious prediction there; I don’t think the product is proven enough for immediate postseason noise, but seven years committed with Bryant suggests the Rockies are pushing forward in that direction.
Patrick: Despite the largest offseason investment in franchise history, the roster still has some questions. There’s a lot to project with the roster still, suggesting that better days could be ahead for those players with lesser service time. However, I don’t know if 2022 will be that year for Colorado. With an extra Wild Card spot, the Rockies only need to be competitive through June in order to make it work. In July, GM Bill Schmidt could work some magic before the trade deadline and give the club an added boost. The Randal Grichuk deal showed that he isn’t afraid of trading away homegrown products.
The Dodgers will be atop the division again, as should the Giants, but the Padres seem a bit suspect. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Rockies could finish in third place. Even though the Diamondbacks have a rotation that’s a bit better than advertised, they still look to be a lock for fifth-place in the NL West.
In a billion simulations of the 2022 season in my head, the Rockies finish in fourth-place the most.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Rockies Twitter accounts to follow.
Justin: Patrick Lyons (@PatrickDLyons), DNVR Rockies Lead Beat Reporter; I don’t think I know anybody with Patrick’s amount of readily-available baseball knowledge. I’ve been a recurring guest on the DNVR Rockies Podcast and am always shocked at how quick-witted and insightful Patrick is at the drop of a hat, which makes it extremely fun, easy and enjoyable to be on his program. Paired with his ability to show his passion for the game, I give Patrick my highest regard of any media representative in baseball. Him and I exchange text messages all the time, which I am extremely grateful for; he inspires me to bring my best and anybody that follows him on Twitter can feel the same. His sincerity is unmatched.
Kenneth Weber (@KDub1988), Purple Row Staff Writer; Kenneth has a sort of specialty on Rockies minor league prospects (among all other things MLB, for that matter!) and he runs some of the most professional conversations out there when it comes to talking Rockies. He’s an amateur coach in greater Denver and possesses all sorts of great knowledge on Colorado baseball, well beyond the Rockies, and it’s fun to get a perspective from somebody so involved in so many different levels of baseball — which is a big reason I believe him and I work together so well. We co-host the Pebble Report Podcast, covering Rockies minor league affiliates, and I believe he and I feed extremely well off each other on our program.
Rox Pile (@RoxPileFS), FanSided affiliate of the Rockies; The Rox Pile account is run by Kevin Henry, the site’s managing editor, and this guy brings all sorts of thought-provoking ideas, mature perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking. He made me feel extremely welcome when I first arrived at the Coors Field press box and he was an easy person to look up to, especially from how professional he carried himself. I believe that is paramount in all forms of high-level media, but especially in covering a team like the Rockies. Kevin is able to do all of that while having a lot of fun covering this game, which directly shows on the Rox Pile account.
Patrick: There are a lot of great accounts that keep track of the Rockies. Too many, perhaps.
@RoxGifsVids will supply the daily highlights of games like no other. Skyler Timmins crushes it with @EveryRockieEver for the nostalgic fans out there. If you prefer more analytics, @JustWick and @n_sunshine_55 crush that kind of coverage. For a good laugh, @PurpleDinocast and @SABRskeptic will provide that in spades. And there’s no shortage of folks with great takes, too. I appreciate the analysis of @Evan_Lang27, as well as coverage by @RoxPileFS and @PurpleRow on the daily activity of the club.
If I missed you out there, I’ll be glad to buy you a beer at that little bar on the corner of Colfax & York.