Black: Rox 'still in that window' of contention
DENVER -- Manager Bud Black touted high expectations on Wednesday because he believes Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story will be in Rockies uniforms in 2021 -- even though the team freely acknowledges that its operation has been affected by a season without fans in the stands.
The Rockies finished fourth in the National League West the past two seasons, including a truncated 2020. Those factors alone lead to speculation that the Rockies want to deal away Arenado, who's due $199 million the next six years, and/or Story, set for $18.5 million in '21 to end a two-year contract.
Black said Hot Stove reports are “great for baseball.” But when he unplugs from the news and analysis, he thinks of a team that isn’t much different from the one that made the postseason in 2017 and '18. The starting pitching that struggled in '19 bounced back last season; however, the touted lineup fizzled, and the bullpen struggled.
“I’d like to think we’re still in that window,” Black said during his annual offseason press availability, which usually takes place at the Winter Meetings. “A lot of the key players that we had to attain our success the last number of years are still with us. There’s a natural turnover of players each and every year, but we’ve kept a lot of our best players.
“We've always said that the core group -- Nolan, Trevor, and Chuck [Charlie Blackmon] hit right in the middle of our order -- they're the guys that make us go. But for us to be the team we want to be, it's going to take Raimel Tapia, Garrett Hampson, Ryan McMahon, Sam Hilliard, Josh Fuentes and whoever else makes our club to get us back in contention where we were a couple years ago.”
Black’s optimism came cautiously against a backdrop of owner Dick Monfort informing fans in a letter that heavy revenue losses from 2020 mean “there will be nothing normal about this offseason,” and general manager Jeff Bridich saying the abnormal offseason was a factor in the decision to non-tender 2019 All-Star outfielder David Dahl, who has signed with the Rangers.
Rotation members Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela had solid years during a 2020 that saw the Rockies finish behind only the Cubs in the NL in terms of quality starts, and Black said righty Jon Gray is healthy after right shoulder inflammation limited his effectiveness and shortened his 2020.
The rest? Well, it has to get better.
“When you talk about bullpen, if you have an eight-man bullpen, you need five, six guys throwing the ball well the entire year,” Black said. “If you're talking about your offense, you need six guys having solid years, you know -- maybe not career years, but solid years. You can have dips in performance from a lot of players. And I think we have that a little bit this year. We're capable. Now we have to deal between the lines.”
But does it all change if the Rockies find a trade -- especially involving Arenado -- that offers payroll relief in 2020 and future seasons?
Black is happy to discuss what the Rockies have, not what they may not have when the season begins.
“That’s probably a better question for our owners, as far as the finances,” he said. “But I always feel like with this group, we have a chance.”
Here are other highlights of Black’s press conference:
• How do the same guys get better without wholesale changes? Black offered a window into that when he discussed the Padres, who surpassed the Rockies as the challenger to the Dodgers in the NL West. While Black acknowledged that the Padres made several key trades before and during the season, much of their improvement came from players who were better in 2020 than they were in '19.
“They really had bounceback years from [Manny] Machado and [Wil] Myers,” Black said. “Those two were instrumental, along with [Fernando] Tatis [Jr.].”
• Bridich has discussed only moves made, not specific plans, so the offseason to this point has been an unknown by design. Black, however, shed light on how the Rockies aim to improve the offense.
“Jeff and his guys are looking around to maybe find one bat, potentially, that fits in amongst our group,” Black said. “We have a lot of versatility amongst our roster; we can move some guys around. Whether it's an outfielder, whether it's maybe a right-side defender, we can maybe use another big bat if possible.”
Black said he is unsure how much dialogue the Rockies have had with free-agent outfielder Kevin Pillar, who slashed .308/.351/.451 in 24 games after arriving in a trade with the Red Sox.
• Black’s injury updates are all positive. He said Gray is playing catch and will go through a normal throwing progression. Righty reliever Scott Oberg, who missed 2020 because of blood clots that led to thoracic outlet surgery, has begun throwing and the early medical reports have him on pace for '21. Black also said righty starter Peter Lambert is on schedule with his rehab for a Tommy John surgery that took place in July.
Also, Black said outfielder Ian Desmond, who chose not to play in 2020, expects to be back in ’21. His role “will be dependent on performance,” Black said. Desmond, due a $10 million commitment ($8 million salary, plus a $2 million buyout on a 2022 option) could return as a starter in left, or as a right-handed platoon/reserve player.