Playing Pepper 2023: Colorado Rockies

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Colorado Rockies
68-94, fifth in the NL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Kyle Freeland (2.6)
Top hitter by fWAR: Ryan McMahon (3.1)

A beautiful park.  Great scenery.  Usually a lot of offense.  Rockies fans have a lot of things going for them, even if the overall package leaves something to be desired and there’s questions about how, shall we say, astute the front office is.  The playoff drought only stretches back to 2018 but it feels so much longer.  Let’s take the pulse of the Mile High City with the people that know it best!

Contributor Site Twitter
Kevin Henry Rox Pile Rox_Coverage
Skyler Timmins Purple Row Sideline_Crowd
Patrick Lyons DNVR PatrickDLyons

C70: The Rockies posted their worst record since 2015 last season. What are your thoughts about where the team stands going into 2023?

Kevin: Colorado will look to get a spark from some of its young players and newcomers this season. Ezequiel Tovar will likely be the team’s Opening Day shortstop and top prospect Zac Veen will likely make his way to Coors Field sometime before the season ends. Throw in Michael Toglia, Elehuris Montero, and Sean Bouchard and there’s a chance Colorado will use this season as a barometer to see if all of the “bamboo” that GM Bill Schmidt mentioned growing up within the system is really a part of the franchise moving forward. It will be another losing season at 20th and Blake, but at least some questions will be answered about the future direction of the franchise.

Skyler: Unfortunately the Rockies didn’t do much to change their look for 2023. The offseason was spent acquiring minor league depth while Jose Urena, Brent Suter, and Pierce Johnson were the only guaranteed big league additions. However, the team has made a concerted effort to bolster their analytics department finally, acquired a new hitting coach, and are changing their philosophies when it comes to individual pitchers, focusing on strengths instead of a cookie cutter ground balls for everyone approach. The team will once again come under 100 losses, but 75 wins seems to be the ceiling this season as they begin transitioning to a younger crew. However, I will always maintain hope for that third wild card spot because I need something to look forward to.

Patrick: When pitchers and catchers reported on February 15, the Colorado Rockies were on the precipice of their fifth-consecutive losing season. Then, Spring Training happened and players began dropping like flies. No less than five players ticketed for a spot on the Opening Day roster were sidelined, several for the entire season. While that created opportunity for some young players, veterans like Brad Hand and Mike Moustakas were brought in to hold down the fort.

The top brass for the Rockies have pointed to the future as the reason to be hopeful. The farm system made major strides last season and is considered in the top half by most prospect prognosticators. However, only SS Ezequiel Tovar will make an impact this year while OF Zac Veen is primed for a debut in the summer.

Hoping that 2023 isn’t a total waste, players on the fringe will be the key focus this season, especially as many of the players who have been signed to long-term deals are essentially cemented in their career production and have minimal likelihood of developing beyond their current stature.

Will this be a 100-loss season? Probably not. This has been an unusual area of pride for an organization that has yet to win their own division in 30 attempts. The club won 74 games in 2021 and brought back the same general cast of characters only to win 68 in 2022. When they’re supposed to zig, they zag. And vice versa. So 100 losses, despite the way it appears this team could be headed, is probably out of the cards.

C70: The first year of Kris Bryant wasn’t everything people were hoping for. Is he due for a bounceback or is this going to be an albatross of a contract?

Kevin: I expect Bryant to be in the conversation for NL Comeback Player of the Year this season. Last year was a nightmare for the Rockies and Bryant, and there’s no way the former MVP has that much bad luck again this season. A rebound year is absolutely in the cards for Bryant, and the Rockies need it to happen.

Skyler: Kris Bryant’s first season in Colorado was quite unlucky. An inability to stay healthy limited him to just 42 games, but he showed evidence of why he was the type of player they have coveted for so long. If he stays healthy, Bryant should have a nice bounce back year in 2023, not only because I think he can, but because the Rockies need him to in order to justify the contract. Thankfully, all reports are that he is 100% healthy and I think a normal offseason and a full, normal spring training with the Rockies will do a lot to help him prepare for a 162 season.

Patrick: In a word, yes. In two words, yeah probably? If Kris Bryant can stay healthy, he’s an incredibly valuable player to this team. Let’s not forget he was an All-Star in 2021 before injuries limited him to 42 games in 2022. He’s a strong candidate to win the NL Comeback Player of the Year and, from what was witnessed during April last season, a decent candidate to win a batting title this year or next thanks to Coors Field.

As far as his contract being an albatross, that will probably have little to do with any success in 2023 as his $182 million deal was a reach for a club that may only start contending as his contract winds down.

C70: Charlie Blackmon had a bit of a rough year last year and is going into the final year of his contract. Will he wind up elsewhere by the trade deadline?

Kevin: No way that Chuck Nazty ends up in another uniform other than a Rockies one. Owner Dick Monfort truly loves stories like Blackmon, who came up through the farm system and stayed in Colorado his whole career. When the Rockies have a Hall of Fame someday, Charlie Blackmon will be a first-ballot entrant. I fully expect Charlie to have some kind of ambassador role with the team when his career ends, and I also expect Coors Field to be packed for that final series of the season (Minnesota comes in from September 29-October 1) to bid him a fond farewell (if this is really the end for the bearded wonder).

Skyler: Over the years the Rockies have increasingly shown a hesitation to trade assets at the deadline. They held on to both Trevor Story and Jon Gray at the 2021 deadline and had just one compensation pick to show for it. If Charlie Blackmon bounces back, thanks in part to the new shift rules, and the Rockies are once again well out of the race by the end of July, it would be interesting to see if Blackmon demands a trade (like Larry Walker did in 2004) in hopes of playing for a contender. Due to his 10-5 rights, Blackmon’s fate is in his own hands and he is extremely loyal to the Rockies after 13 years.

Personally, however, I don’t see Blackmon getting traded. His production is going to play a factor into reassessment of that opinion, but it’s more likely he sticks with the team and seeks an opportunity elsewhere in free agency thanks to the DH in both leagues.

Patrick: Owner Dick Monfort said Blackmon was probably worthy of having his no. 19 retired by the club for his 13 years of service. After Todd Helton, he’s next in terms of players you think about when envisioning players with the Rockies. (That is, putting aside Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado, three players who were developed by the franchise only to be traded away in the primes of their careers.)

In September, Colorado has a Blackmon bobblehead on the books. Have they painted themselves into a corner? Is anyone from the front office even aware of this potential public relations nightmare? As much as Blackmon and the Rockies go together like peas and carrots, it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for the two to part ways for Blackmon to get one last opportunity to play meaningful baseball games and, just maybe, win a World Series.

C70: What young player (rookie or limited MLB experience) will make the most impact on the 2023 season for Colorado?

Kevin: Ezequiel Tovar is a name to watch this season, and one that gives the Rockies a chance at NL Rookie of the Year if he performs up to expectations. From Troy Tulowitzki to Trevor Story, the Rockies have had a great history recently at shortstop, and the 21-year-old Tovar is the next in that line. He got in 33 at-bats last year and slugged his first MLB home run. There is plenty more to come from Tovar.

Skyler: All eyes will be on Ezequiel Tovar this season for the Rockies, but I feel Riley Pint is bound to make an impact this year. The former first round draft pick struggled with injuries and performance before retiring during the 2021 season. However, during that offseason and into the start of 2022, Pint re-signed with the Rockies, converting to a reliever full time, and found quite a bit of success and finished the year with Triple-A Albuquerque. He got added to the 40-man roster this offseason, so it seems like the year is primed for Pint to arrive and finally deliver on the goods. And the Rockies are going to need it as the bullpen has some important spots to fill and a number of competitors for the spot.

Patrick: Ezequiel Tovar is the player to watch. He may end up being the only true rookie to watch depending on how the season plays out for those in the upper level of the minors. Tovar is tabbed to start on Opening Day at the age of 21. His defense has been ready for almost two years and the bat has come along nicely after a breakout first half in Double-A. Had he not missed two months with a groin injury, Tovar could have spent the final several weeks of the season in Denver.

Zac Veen is the next name to watch. A flashy outfielder without flashy speed – though he will steal a preponderance of bases simply because of his Baseball IQ – Veen was the ninth overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. He was rumored to go as high as second overall and was an absolute gift to Colorado. Veen packed on 20 pounds during the offseason in hopes of elevating the baseball more and bringing up his homer totals. He’s also 21 and will pair nicely with Tovar as the two lead the Rockies in pursuit of regaining relevance for the franchise.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Kevin: Best case, Rockies take advantage of the balanced schedule and staying away from their NL West foes and actually stay in the playoff race enough to have people wondering what they’re doing at the trade deadline. Playing .500 as Dick Monfort said before the season would show the Rockies have a young core that is already coming together and it’s ahead of schedule.

That’s the best case. The worst is that injuries hit the team hard and Colorado’s lack of depth at the minor league level is exposed, pushing the Rockies to their first 100-loss season in franchise history. Just like the best case, that in all probability won’t happen, but if it did, it might be enough for Rockies fans to say enough is enough and not show up at Coors for the first time in a long time. Don’t forget, Colorado ranked ninth in attendance per game last season, so it would take a lot for fans to not come to games … but a 100-loss season could do the trick.

Skyler: Best case scenario is that everything goes according to plan. Kris Bryant stays healthy and regains his MVP form, with the rest of the offense following suit to break out and solve the woes of hitting on the road. The starting rotation also needs to take a step forward to keep the team competitive. Also, their prospects arrive on schedule and make the most of their opportunities, and by season’s end the Rockies play .500 baseball.

Worst case is the exact opposite. Injuries and underproduction decimate the roster and the highly touted prospects struggle mightily, resulting in yet another lost season for their 30th anniversary.

Most likely however, is that the team will come out better than expected in April and early part of May. However, things will begin to take a turn for the worst and other teams heat up while the Rockies cool down. They’ll play well at Coors Field but struggle to win 20 games on the road. They will defy preseason projections and odds and win more games than everyone thinks they will, but it will all be in vain as a couple of bad months will have them scrapping the basement of the NL West.

Patrick: The best case scenario pertains more to the success of individual players, and the right individual players, like those who are young and those who have extensions to stay in Colorado for the next few seasons. As far as record is concerned, managing to win 78 games might be the best they can hope for even if everything goes right at this point.

Worst case: 100 losses… and minimal activity at the trade deadline. It’s one thing to lose 100 games. It’s another to avoid losing 100 games. But to sidestep futility by holding onto veteran players who will be free agents at the end of the season – something Colorado has their fair share of – is doing damage to the future of the franchise. There was one deal made at the trade deadline in 2021 and the word “malpractice” was used to describe it by industry insiders. In 2022, the Rockies were the only team in all of MLB to not make a trade. For it to happen again would be one of the most embarrassing transgressions in team history. Let’s wait and see…

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