The Colorado Rockies struggled to a 74 win season under GM Dan O’Dowd. Can Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez right the ship in 2014?
The Colorado Rockies have some good players. This is something that tends to get lost sometimes in the rest of the baseball universe, amidst dismissals of their players’ talents due to their beneficial hitting environment and their lackluster records of late, it can be easy for baseball fans to forget that the Colorado Rockies have some mighty fine baseball players. This shows up, every now and then, when the Rockies ‘defy expectations’ by playing well. On May 24th of 2013, the Rockies shut out the Giants 5-0 behind 6 good innings from Tyler Chatwood who improved his own record to 3-0. The Rockies finished that day with a record of 27-21, tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for first in the NL West, and eight games ahead of the lowly, disappointing Dodgers. Those reading this likely don’t need to be told what happened after that date, as they are still waking up screaming about it nightly. Soon after that long weekend, a giant Yasiel Puig / Hanley Ramirez shaped juggernaut tore the wheels off the season and went on an historic run to a 92 win season. The Rockies were left in the dust as injuries and regression took their minor tolls, and the team struggled the rest of the season, finishing with a disappointing 74 wins and 18 games back of the mighty Dodgers, even after their fiery start to the year.
Todd Helton retired following the 2013 season and his victory tour left the Rox with a fairly large hole at first base. His .249/.314/.423 slash line was good for a 89 wRC+, or about 10% below the league average for a first baseman with his home park factored in. Helton’s veteran presents on the team will surely be missed, but the Rockies are definitely hoping that their offseason signing of Justin Morneau (2 years/$12.5 million) can provide a needed upgrade on the production they got from him last year. Morneau, however, is no sure thing himself. He’s in a steep decline since concussions and injuries derailed his impressive skills. Last year’s .267/.333/.440 line was an improvement over his career-worst year in 2012, but his ISO doesn’t appear poised to return to the levels he enjoyed prior to 2011′s concussion. Projections for him in 2014 don’t appear too confident that he’ll produce a lot better than Helton, even with the move to the home park, but if Morneau can maintain a 100 wRC+ with the knock he takes playing in Coors’, the Rockies would surely be happy with their return on investment.
The free agent market was not the only avenue that GM Dan O’Dowd utilized to try and improve his team in 2014. Two notable Rockies trades happened this offseason, each with very different outcomes for the team. Oakland A’s superb but fragile starter Brett Anderson was acquired at the cost of promising pitching prospect Drew Pomeranz and minor leaguer Chris Jensen. The move strengthens a rotation that badly needs strengthening, especially with the news of Jhoulys Chacin being shut down already, and Pomeranz appears to be a change-of-scenery candidate that may thrive in Oakland but may not have in Colorado. In a rather opposite move, the Rockies shipped one of their better players, Dexter Fowler, off to the Astros in exchange for starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, outfielder Brandon Barnes and salary relief, presumably to offset the addition of Anderson’s paycheck to the roster. This appears to have been an odd set of moves when viewed in the aggregate, as Fowler produced as much fWAR in 2013 as Anderson has in the past three seasons combined. While the Rockies needed to upgrade their pitching, they still are not an offensive juggernaut that can sustain losing one of their top contributors from the other side of the ball.
The Rockies’ Payroll has skyrocketed in 2014. Cot’s Contracts reports the team opened 2013 with a payroll around 74 million dollars, their lowest in some years, but that number will skyrocket to over $85.5 million to open 2014, thanks to the addition of Morneau and to Troy Tulowitzki‘s more expensive years at the back of his contract kicking in.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career last year, as he pitched to a 3.49 ERA that was mostly backed up by his 3.76 FIP. He only struck out 6 batters per nine innings, and didn’t limit walks in a huge way with 3.3 free passes per nine, but he continued to display his uncanny skill for keeping the ball in the park, even in the thin Colorado air. Whether or not de la Rosa can sustain his gains from last year into this one will be a major key for the Rockies this season. Especially with Chacin out, the team needs de la Rosa and Anderson both to come on strong and have healthy, productive years if they hope to field a competitive team behind a hopefully healthy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.
NEEDS TO SHINE
Rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado made highlight reels for the bulk of last season with his fantastic glovework. FanGraphs’ ‘Def’ rating is an aggregate of various ways to measure defense, and that metric pegged Arenado as the sixth most valuable defensive player in baseball last year. However, his status as a top prospect was not solely for his glove. Growing pains and slumps led Arenado to a disappointing 79 wRC+ that included a far-below-average .301 OBP. Arenado’s skillset did not show too dramatic a change from his time in the minors, and there’s hope that a boost back up above his 4.5% walk rate last year will help take his value significantly. He’s hit for less and less power as he moved up in levels, but the pure hitting ability has been there consistently and he doesn’t strike out much and he’s only 22, so the power should still definitely be a couple years away. Arenado having a breakout year could be a major difference maker for Colorado in 2014, he put up 2.7 fWAR on defense alone in spite of his nigh-anemic bat. A big offensive year could see him surprise everyone with a 6 WAR season, if not in 2014 then soon.
Michael Cuddyer led the National League in batting average in 2013 with a .331 mark propped up by a .378 BABIP nearly a hundred points higher than the one he posted the year prior. His atrocious defense held his WAR total down to a meager 2.5, but the old dude mashed in 2013, of that there is no question. He’s not about to wash out of the game or anything, but Cuddyer’s chances of hitting .331 again next year are really only a couple standard deviations better than yours are.
Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are two of the games truly elite talents, but both have trouble staying on the field. They put up 10.5 WAR between them in 2013 despite missing a combined 88 games. Both mixed good defense (stellar in Tulo’s case) at a premium position with an elite hitting profile and both are under contract for the next while. When you have elite talent on your team, and you play in a launching pad of a home park in a bottom-heavy division, there’s always a chance. If everything clicks right, and the supporting cast behind the (hopefully healthy) superstars play up to their potential (I haven’t mentioned Corey Dickerson, who is a nice little player in his own right) and they get any luck at all on the pitching side of the ball, it’s possible if not very likely that the Rockies could mash their way into a wildcard spot. The Rockies have built themselves in a very boom or bust fashion, and fans are eagerly awaiting the boom.