2018 Colorado Rockies: Pitching only goes so far

Next man up: The Rockies have a 25-year-old shortstop (Trevor Story) with a career .504 slugging percentage, a 29-year-old second baseman (DJ LeMahieu) with a .302 career average and a 26-year-old third baseman (Nolan Arenado) who is a two-time NL home run champion. Where then to play Brendan Rodgers, a 21-year-old infielder who was the third pick of the 2015 draft and seems to have played like it, slugging .505 over three minor-league seasons? First-division problems. But look closer: Rodgers’ offense dropped 341 points of OPS in 2017 upon his promotion to Class AA from Class A. Fifty-one games in Lancaster in the California League will do what editing can do to a social media meme: it’ll make an image seem something it isn’t. Rodgers has a .301 career minor league average, but it’s .275 when not playing for Lancaster; Rodgers has a career .505 slugging percentage, but it’s .454 when not playing for Lancaster. Remember Brandon Wood? He was a can’t-miss Angels infield prospect who missed (Wood apparently called it a career before turning 30 after slashing .098/156/159 at the Independent League’s Sugar Land in 2014.) Like Wood, Rodgers is  indiscriminate at the plate. He’s walked 64 times and fanned 206, and he was worse last year — he fanned five times for every walk (71-14).

What he said: Rockies manager Bud Black on Ian Desmond’s defense at first base: “Fine. Good. This guy was a shortstop.” What he meant: “If only he still didn’t hit like a shortstop.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The Rockies’ pitching is better than it seemed. Colorado was 17th in team ERA (4.51) last year, its best finish since being 10th in 2009. Factoring in Coors, Rockies pitchers were better than that — they were ninth in ERA on the road (4.09). Best of all, the Rockies pitchers might be even better this year. Of their projected six top starters, all are younger than 30 and five will be 26 or younger on Opening Day. 2. Rockies catchers were 24th in OPS last year at .674, and none of them — Tony Wolters (.685 at home), Ryan Hanigan (.569) or Dustin Garneau (.421) could even hit in Coors, until Jonathan Lucroy was added four months into the season. Chris Iannetta, who had an .865 OPS for Arizona last year, will be better, though it would be hard not to be. Iannatta played his first seven seasons as Rockie and has a career .879 OPS at Coors. 3. If bullpens are the way to win, the Rockies are in good shape. No one spent as much  on theirs this offseason, and it’s probable that no other team’s Opening Day payroll will have a higher percentage of expenditures going to it. The Rockies spent $52 million over the next three seasons on Wade Davis to replace Greg Holland as closer; Holland is still unsigned, and having seen what they paid his replacement might be one reason why. Davis has a 1.45 ERA over the last four seasons, but hasn’t thrown 60 innings since 2015. The Rockies spent another $25 million to pry Bryan Shaw away from the Indians. Shaw, who has a career .660 OPS against, was always loved more by manager Terry Francona than the team’s fans. That’s $77 million on two long-term contracts for relievers, though, it could have been worse. Last offseason they spent $70 million on Ian Desmond (see No.2 below).

Three reasons it won’t: 1. The Rockies don’t hit as well as it seemed. They were third in runs scored last year, but a lot of that was the Coors Field illusion. They scored 488 runs and averaged 6.0 per game at home last year, leading MLB; they scored 336 runs and averaged 4.1 on the road last year, finishing 25th. Charlie Blackmon, who had a Hall of Fame-like 1.239 OPS at home, was a more ordinary .784 on the road; Gerardo Parra hit .337 at home and .279 on the road; Mark Reynolds hit 21 of his 30 homers at Coors and slugged .392 with a .703 OPS on the road, which might explain the lack of interest in a 30-home run hitter; Carlos Gonzalez hit .323 with a .923 OPS at Coors but .203 with a .606 OPS away from it, which might explain 29 other teams’ reluctance to pay him big money to play a maximum of 19 games at Coors instead of 81. (Nolan Arenado, who hit .336 and slugged .664 at Coors, was pretty good at other venues. He hit .283 and slugged .531 on the road, where he hit 18 of his 37 home runs). 2. The Rockies still have four years left to figure out what to do with Ian Desmond, who will make at least $62 million while they do. The signing never made any sense, even when Desmond was coming off a .285/335/446 season in Texas; it makes no less now that Desmond slugged .375 in 95 games as Rockie. The Rangers gave Desmond $8 million for one season when he was still a shortstop and made him an outfielder. That should have lessened his value, and maybe it did, to everyone but the Rockies. They paid him $68 million over five to play first base, and it will cost them another $2 million in 2022 to avoid paying him $15 million more. Desmond couldn’t beat out Mark Reynolds last year, and his 2017 wasn’t as good as Carlos Gonzalez’s,  who the Rockies allowed to leave as a free agent. 3. Three of the Rockies’ top corner outfielders — Desmond, Gerardo Parra and Raimel Tapia — combined for 19 homers in 969 plate appearances last year. Somewhere Dante Bichette weeps. Nineteen homers for a Rockies corner outfielder is a normal half a season, not a collaboration. Desmond has hit 20 or more four times, so it’s possible his power will be revived. But Parra hit .309, slugged .452 and still had a sub-.800 OPS at .793; his WAR of 0.9 reflected that. Tapia is a speed-first outfielder of the Jarrod Dyson/Juan Pierre mold: a better hitter than Dyson who doesn’t walk as much or steal bases as well, or more power than Pierre with less patience. Tapia hit .369 at Albuquerque, which has long been the Lancaster of AAA. Tapia is a career .322 hitter and has hit .300 or better in six straight minor league seasons, but he is prone to swing first and take rarely. Last year he walked 13 times and fanned 42, though that was better than 2015, when he walked 24 times and fanned 105. The Rockies need a return to health for David Dahl, who slugged .500 in half a season in 2016, but missed all of 2017 to rib and back injuries.

Team song: Jackie Wilson: Higher and higher

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