Is This the Best Rockies Team Ever?

As spring turns to summer in the MLB season, misleading first months give way to a clearer picture of which teams will contend, and which will prepare to endure a long season. The expected cream of the National League — the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs — have taken their expected seats at or near the tops of their divisions. However, one club few saw coming is emerging as a dangerous pennant party crasher. If the season ended today, the Colorado Rockies would be the No. 1 seed in the NL, and would host the wild card winner in Game 1 of the division series at Coors Field.

It is the Rockies though, they’ll fall back to the pack, right? They always bring the bats, but they don’t pitch, and they don’t play well on the road. Well, not so fast. We may be looking at the best team Colorado has ever fielded.

For the bulk of the last quarter century, one didn’t have to look much higher than 4th place in the NL West in order to find the Colorado Rockies. In spite of stars like Walker, Helton, Castilla, Galarraga, Tulowitzski, and Gonzalez rolling through Denver over the years, Colorado has endured seven 90-loss seasons. They’ve finished last in the NL West six times, and fourth place eight times. While the club has made three playoff appearances, all came via the wild card. Now in their 25th season, the Rockies still seek their first ever division crown.

BlakeBombers2

From L-R, Colorado’s “Blake Street Bombers” of the mid-1990s: Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, and Andres Galarraga. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

There has been short periods of winning baseball scattered among all of the losing seasons. Colorado posted three consecutive winning seasons from 1995-1997, powered by a wrecking crew offense that defined the Coors Field mystique as a hitter’s paradise. However, nine consecutive losing seasons followed before the Rockies would return to the playoffs in 2007, led by MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, star rookie Troy Tulowitzski, and ace-to-be Jeff Francis.

That team stood just 54-52 on August 1 but famously captured lightning in a bottle in September, winning 13 of their final 14 regular season games and besting San Diego in a legendary game 163 to secure the wild card. “Rocktober” was born, and Colorado rode the tremendous momentum all the way to the National League pennant before being swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.

In 2009, on the strength of the most successful starting rotation in team history (Five starters with double-digit wins) the Rockies set the franchise mark with 92 wins, but were bested in four games in the NLDS by the eventual pennant winning Philadelphia Phillies. The team managed 83 wins the following season, but finished a distant third place in the NL West.

It’s been a walk through the darkness for Colorado since then, as they entered 2017 on a string of six consecutive losing seasons that includes three years of 94+ losses. That streak appears bound to be broken this season however, as the Rockies have steamed out to a 41-24 start and currently sit atop the NL West. They’ve done it not only with a typically stellar offense, but with surprisingly good starting pitching and one of the best back-end bullpens in baseball.

It always begins with the bats in Colorado, and they’ve been led this season by break out star Charlie Blackmon, established stud Nolan Arenado, and veteran Mark Reynolds, who at 33-years-old is on his way to a career year. The trio has a combined .290 average with 46 homers and 152 RBI through the season’s first 65 games. Blackmon currently leads the major leagues in hits, is sixth in batting average, and sits third in RBI, just behind Reynolds. Arenado is second in the majors in doubles and ranks ninth in RBI.

mark-reynolds

Always known for his prodigious power and propensity for huge strikeout totals, Mark Reynolds’ average has sat above .300 for most of the season. Photo Courtesy of roxpile.com

Blackmon, Reynolds, and Arenado have been so impressive they’ve more than made up for slow starts from Trevor Story and Carlos Gonzalez, and a relative drop-off from reigning NL batting champ D.J. LeMahieu (who still ranks sixth in the NL in hits). Colorado leads baseball in runs scored, and one could still argue they have not fully hit their stride offensively.

While we’ve come to expect gaudy offensive numbers from the Rockies, lack of starting pitching has been a perennial issue for the franchise for most of it’s existence. Ace starters would rather run through Hades in gasoline underwear than make 15 starts a year at Coors, and as a result Colorado has turned to developing starters from the ground up. Homegrown rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have combined for 15 wins in 25 starts and have emerged as the leaders of the rotation.

Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez, another pair of rookies acquired via trade as minor leaguers, have added 8 more wins over 13 starts. Overall, the Rockies starters lead the major leagues with 32 wins, and they’ve done that without a single victory from projected ace Jon Gray, who has been on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot that will keep him sidelined through June.

Seattle Mariners v Colorado Rockies

The #3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Jon Gray was a 10-game winner in his first full season in 2016 and could provide a huge boost to the Rockies’ rotation down the stretch. Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com

Not only have the Rockies gotten length from their starters (Averaging nearly 6 IP per start) they’ve been witness to a dominant comeback from former all-star closer Greg Holland, who missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Holland leads all of baseball with 23 saves, and has a minuscule 0.89 WHIP to go along with a 1.14 ERA. Jake McGee, a big offseason acquisition following the 2015 season, has bounced back from a rough 2016 and regained the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the AL with Tampa Bay. Toss in Adam Ottavino, who had been very effective prior to a recent bout with shoulder inflammation landing him on the DL, and you have the makings of a shut down bullpen at the end of games.

What about the Rockies historic struggles playing on the road? It’s not just a biased perception. The 2009 team that set the franchise record for wins went 41-40 on the road, the only club to date with a winning road record in team history. The 2017 version? All they’ve done is win nine road series, good for a 24-11 record away from the friendly confines of Coors Field.

Are you convinced the Rockies are a legitimate contender yet? Ok, because there’s more. In addition to an already potent lineup, the Rockies have depth on the bench that is already paying dividends. Major acquisition Ian Desmond, slated to be the club’s starting first baseman heading into the campaign, has been forced into a utility role thanks to Reynolds taking command of the position. Gerardo Parra, who has served as the primary left fielder, was hitting .318 prior to hitting the DL this week with a quadriceps strain. No sweat for Colorado, as Desmond now easily slides in as the starting left fielder for the duration.

Alexi Amarista, a former starter in San Diego, has taken on a bench role with Colorado and is currently hitting .329. This is a team built to withstand injuries, and the ups and downs of a big league season.

Still, I’m not ready to crown the Rockies NL West champs and World Series contenders just yet. The team has ridden rookie starting pitchers thus far, but there is still 100 games left in the regular season, and the league could still figure out some of the Rockies youngsters. Assuming they will get a healthy and effective Jon Gray back for the stretch run, this team still needs a veteran starter to push them over the top, and they have the farm system to do it. MLB Pipeline ranked the Rockies system No. 8 prior to the season.

The White Sox Jose Quintana immediately comes to mind as a candidate, as does the Royals Jason Vargas, although Vargas’ high fly ball percentage may not serve him well in Denver. Regardless, the Rockies should dive heavily into the starting pitching market at the deadline, and they just may find themselves playing late October baseball.

-AC

NL West Round Up: 5/17-5/24

With just one week left in May, the MLB season is nearing its 1/3 mark. Misleading Aprils have given way to more concrete ideas of who will contend and who won’t, and the NL West is shaping up to be the most competitive division in the senior circuit in 2017. Let’s take a look at where the Giants’ division rivals stand in this week’s round up:

1. Colorado Rockies: 31-17

The Rockies became the first National League team to reach 30 wins this week, and are tied with the Houston Astros for the major league lead in victories. We expect Colorado to bring offensive thunder every year, but this year’s young pitching staff is exceeding expectations, and have done it largely without projected ace Jon Gray. Rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have a combined 11-3 record, and 22 year-old second year man German Marquez has filled in admirably for the injured Gray.

While the rotation has relied on youngsters, the Rockies bullpen is stocked with veterans off to strong starts. Jake McGee has regained the form that made him a top reliever with Tampa Bay, and Adam Ottavino appears to be bouncing back after injury plagued 2015-2016 seasons. Most impressive of all has been Greg Holland, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Holland leads the MLB with 19 saves in 19 chances, and has a 0.96 ERA and 0.84 WHIP.

On offense, the Rockies have arguably the best 1-7 in all of baseball, with Charlie Blackmon leading the way at the top of the order. Blackmon has emerged as a perennial All-Star candidate, and leads the majors in hits, RBI, and triples. Nolan Arenado has been as steady as ever, with a .293/.349/.574 line to go along with 12 homers and 33 RBI heading into Thursday’s contest. Mark Reynolds was so outstanding filling in for the injured Ian Desmond that he’s implanted himself as the team’s first baseman. He’s slashed .311/.387/.561, with 12 home runs and 39 RBI. D.J. LeMahieu, the reigning NL batting champion, has not quite matched last year’s output thus far but still ranks 7th in the NL in hits.

Charlie-Blackmon-Swing

After career highs across the board in 2016, Charlie Blackmon has ascended to one of the top center fielders in baseball.

Colorado has not had a winning June since 2011, so the upcoming month will be crucial in determining whether or not this team is a legitimate NL powerhouse.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks: 29-19

The Dbacks had high hopes heading into the 2016 season, thanks to the additions of top end starters Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. It turned out to be a disaster in the desert however, with a down year from Greinke and a combined 40 losses from Miller, Patrick Corbin, and Robbie Ray. Arizona finished with 93 losses, and both manager Chip Hale and GM Dave Stewart were shown the door. Still, the Dbacks had a young and talented core in place, and it appears they are back with a vengeance in 2017.

Greinke has regained the form that made him baseball’s highest paid player, and currently sits at 6-2 with a 2.82 ERA. While Arizona got the unfortunate news that Miller would undergo TJ and miss the rest of the year, Ray and Corbin have pitched much better, and offseason acquisition Taijuan Walker (recently placed on the DL with a blister issue) has been a key pick up thus far. Closer Fernando Rodney has had a few rough outings of late, but has still managed to notch 12 saves. Former starter Archie Bradley and left hander Andrew Chafin have stepped up big for the Dbacks pen, allowing just six earned runs in 36 innings of work combined.

Like division leading Colorado, offense is not in short supply in the desert. Arizona ranks in the top three in the NL in hits, home runs, batting average, slugging, runs scored, and stolen bases. Jake Lamb has emerged as a franchise third baseman to couple with resident MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, and the pair have combined for 24 homers and 77 RBI on the young season. Chris Owings has been a surprise bright spot on offense, coming into Thursday with a .321 average while serving as a utility man extraordinaire on defense.

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Lamb and Goldie look to have the corner infield locked down for the foreseeable future in Arizona.

Arizona did take another injury hit this week however, as star center fielder A.J. Pollock was place on the 10-day DL with a strained groin, and will likely miss all of Arizona’s upcoming 11-game road trip. The Diamondbacks will play a four game series against NL Central contender Milwaukee before traveling to Pittsburgh for a three game series. The club will wrap up the trip with a four game series against Miami before returning home to the friendly confines of Chase Field on June 6.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 27-20

Slated as a World Series contender by many heading into the 2017 season, the Dodgers went just 14-12 in April, but have bounced back for a 13-8 mark thus far in May and currently sit 3.5 games behind Colorado. Clayton Kershaw has been his typically dominant self, but its been up and down for the rest of the Los Angeles starting rotation. Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda have both spent time on the disabled list, and Hyun-Jin Ryu has struggled with his command as well as allowing the long ball. Depth is a hallmark of this club however, and the Dodgers have seen solid work from Brandon McCarthy and a stellar start from Alex Wood. Wood enters Thursday with a 5-0 record and 1.88 ERA, and his 213 ERA+ actually outpaces Kershaw’s 203.

Where the Dodgers have truly excelled is in the bullpen, which ranks tops in the National League with a 3.01 ERA. Kenley Jansen has been as dominant as ever, with an absurd 16.5 K/9. He’s struck out 33 and has yet to walk a batter in 18 IP. Journeyman Josh Fields is having the best season of his career (0.92 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) and Pedro Baez has picked up where he left off last year as one of the top work horses in the NL.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Pittsburgh Pirates

Already an All-Star, if Kenley Jansen can maintain his current dominance, he could become the first reliever to win the Cy Young award since Eric Gagne in 2003.

On offense, Cody Bellinger is looking every bit like the star the organization anticipated, leading the club in both homers (9) and RBI (25) with an OPS+ of 151. Corey Seager has shown no signs of a sophomore slump, slashing .284/.384/.485 to pair with 7 homers and 23 RBI. In Seager and Bellinger, the Dodgers appear to have a tandem that will be a thorn in the side of their NL West rivals for years to come. Justin Turner, coming off a career year in 2016, currently leads all of baseball with a .379 average, but just landed on the DL with a Grade 1 hamstring strain. The team does not believe the injury will keep Turner out far beyond the minimum 10 days.

Of some concern for the Dodgers may be veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who currently has a .325 SLG and has yet to homer this season. This appears to be a continuation of a growing trend for the 34 year-old, who posted the lowest OPS+ (112) of any full season in his career last year. Center fielder Joc Pederson has also struggled, with a .200/.305/.408 line and a meager 68 OPS+. As previously stated however, depth is a major strength for Los Angeles, and one has to believe the cream will rise, and the Dodgers will be at or near the top of the division by midseason.

4. San Francisco Giants: 20-28

We cover this team with just a bit more depth in other sections of this website.

5. San Diego Padres: 17-31

The Padres were a near unanimous choice to finish at the bottom of the NL West, and they’ve been kind enough to oblige. It’s going to be a long season for San Diego, as the team appears poised to lose 95+ games. The Friars have a -90 run differential, and have actually outperformed their 15-33 Pythagorean W-L record. Not surprisingly, Wil Myers leads the club in nearly every offensive category, but is also third in the NL with a whopping 55 strikeouts. Ryan Schimpf however, is taking baseball’s all or nothing trend to new heights, with a full 50% of his 22 hits leaving the ballpark. Prized rookie Manuel Margot has shown flashes of what has the Padres excited for his future, but went just 2-17 in the last week.

Wil Myers

For the Padres it’s Wil Myers and a whole bunch of, yikes.

San Diego has struggled on the mound as well, allowing the most runs in the National League. They have the second highest team ERA in the league, and only the Phillies and Marlins (9) have gotten fewer wins from their starters. Clayton Richard has been a relative bright spot, ranking 6th in the NL in innings pitched, and Brad Hand has a 1.73 ERA in relief.

It won’t get any easier for the Padres next week, as they travel to Washington for a three game set with the NL East leading Nats, then return home to play the defending champion Cubs for three.

 

-AC

 

“Rockies are a Sleeper, Calling It…”

So, we’ve heard this every year for how many seasons now? “The Rockies are going to sneak up on people” and “They sure can swing it”. Yes, the Rockies have been able to hit for the better part of 20 years. They also have had less than a handful of bona-fide front line starting pitchers in that same span. If you can’t pitch, you can’t win playoff games.

Sure Arenado, Car-Go and Trevor Story are going to combine for like, 100 homers and 350 RBIs, but the Rocks are also going to give up a touchdown a game. But hey, at least their mascot screams bravado from Rocky Mountain highs.

forsale

Dinger will find you, and he will gore you.