Let’s start with some facts. The Rockies didn’t play .500 baseball this year. In fact, they played .463 baseball by going 75-87. They allowed more runs than they scored, had one of the highest bullpen ERAs in the game (even after adjusting for park), and still have to wear those hideous black vests every now and then. The vests are probably the largest area of concern for the team, but we’ll focus on the actual playing of baseball right now.
Despite the above, the Rockies have a fair amount of hope for the future. The 2016 season marked the arrivals of heralded prospects such as David Dahl, Jeff Hoffman, and Trevor Story. The team boasted a lineup that looked fearsome on paper, unless you adjust for Coors Field. (Even without adjusting for Coors, Gerardo Parra and his .271 OBP weren’t great.)
Of course, it also included Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu, and the aforementioned Dahl and Story. That’s more than enough to build around. The Rockies also have the benefit of being able to look forward to the premiers of highly rated prospects such as Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, and (a bit further down the line) Brendan Rodgers over the next few years. Any number of these young players could also serve as trade chips to bring in more pitching. With owner Dick Monfort going on the record to say that Colorado will be operating with a larger budget than ever before, it’s time to start thinking about just how close this team is to contention.
Because of Coors Field, the Rockies will likely never have an overwhelmingly strong pitching staff. The location does everything it can to shift the balance of power towards hitters. Because of that, it’s difficult to lure in free agents. “You probably won’t get shelled too much” isn’t exactly the best sales pitch in the world. That’s why the Rockies have made a focus to acquire pitching prospects like Hoffman, and have drafted arms in the first round like Gray, Eddie Butler, Kyle Freeland, Mike Nikorak, and Riley Pint. Pitching will not easily come to Colorado. They must make their own.
They seem to have a winner in Gray. The third-overall pick of the 2013 draft, Gray pitched 168 big-league innings this year. A very-Coors-indeed ERA of 4.61 masks a much more appealing FIP of 3.60 and a DRA of 3.45. Gray struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings and has a slider that can make grown men cry.
His ERA will likely always be victimized by his home field, but he’s more than worthy of next year’s Opening Day assignment. Behind him is Tyler Anderson, a rookie left-hander who managed a 3.54 ERA with the peripherals (3.59 FIP, 3.29 DRA) to back it up. Also finishing the year in the rotation was Hoffman. He didn’t pitch well in his eight starts, but conclusions should not be drawn from his first 31.1 innings at the big-league level. Hoffman’s pedigree suggests that the potential for more is there. If he taps into that, he’s a building block for the future.
All of this is a way of saying that the Rockies have a path to contention in the relatively near future. Monfort’s comments about the budget suggest that the team may add notable free agents or trade for players on large contracts. The team is always in need of more pitching, especially in the bullpen, and has room for improvement at first base and behind the plate.
Pitching isn’t exactly the strength of this free-agent class, to put it kindly. The most attractive arms are (in rough order of strength) Rich Hill, Jason Hammel, Jeremy Hellickson, Edinson Volquez and Bartolo Colon. Yeah, no. Colon could be an option to soak up innings if nothing else, but no one in this group seems to be an ideal candidate for Colorado. Hill is old, and Hammel, Hellickson and Volquez have histories of watching balls fly over the fence. Coors Field is not an ideal home for them. Starting help will need to come from trades or from within.
The relief market is actually fine enough, and the Rockies should be able to bring in an arm or two. As for catcher, the Rockies can get away with using a combination of the defensively capable Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy, who hit well in the minors, behind the plate. It won’t be the end of the world, and they may very well bring in a veteran type to understudy for Murphy should he need more seasoning. Ultimately, though, it’s the opening at first base that’s of interest — and a place where the Rockies can have a little fun.
But what if the Rockies pursued Edwin Encarnacion? He’s undeniably one of the premier sluggers in the game right now. He’ll also be 34 next season. Encarnacion is a win-now move, and he will theoretically be in his decline as he makes the many millions of dollars he will sign for this winter. The Rockies aren’t in a prime position to contend next year (unless they do something crazy like trade for Chris Sale, or bite at the theoretical Justin Verlander – Miguel Cabrera package proposed by Craig Edwards). They might very well be there by 2018, but Encarnacion will be another year older. It’s entirely possible he could age well, but we’ll chose to believe he’ll start to feel the effects of time on his body.
That’s where Coors Field comes in. Coors rated substantially higher for home runs this year than Rogers Centre according to the park factors. Even as Encarnacion ages, the ball will still be getting a little help from the altitude as it makes for the seats. He might devolve into a low-average three-true-outcomes sort of hitter, but that’ll play at Coors, especially since he’ll have Arenado, Dahl, Story and others around him also slugging the ball all over the place.
If the Rockies get just a bit more out of their pitching staff, not a dramatic amount more, but just enough, they could win by slugging their opponents to death. They needn’t assemble a rotation composed of naught but aces, but a collection of exceedingly competent arms could go a long way. Plug in Encarnacion, and it gets even more fun. This isn’t all going to happen in one winter. The Rockies can start the building now, though. A piece here, a piece there. See how the youngsters fare with another season under their belts. And then, if all goes well, go all-in a year from now.
The name of the Rockies’ terrifying crazy-eyed dinosaur mascot is Dinger. There will always be balls flying over the fence at Coors Field. The team who does their best to limit that will win. That John Madden-esque kernel of wisdom may seem blasé, but so be it. A heavy-hitting Rockies team with a competent pitching staff is a terrifying thought. They’re much closer to that becoming a reality than you may think.