SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies entered last season confident even though they faced questions about their starting rotation and, quite frankly, years of losing ways. A trip to the postseason -- the team's first since 2009 -- was a solid response.
But last year wasn't an acceptable final answer. In fact, questions abound.
Can a rotation driven last season by young pitchers and expert handling from first-year Rockies manager Bud Black stay a step ahead of foes? Will significant lineup changes -- possibly a new batting order -- push the offense forward? Will what seems to be the natural order of the National League West return with primarily the Giants pushing the Dodgers for the division crown, which has resided in Los Angeles for the last five seasons?
As last year proved, the Rockies don't mind facing questions.
"Guys are hungry," third baseman Nolan Arenado said. "It's no different. Guys are looking to prove themselves. Us veteran players, guys that have done this, they want to keep it going. When you get a taste of the playoffs like we did last year, we want that back again."
Last year ended with a wild, bitter 11-9 loss to the D-backs in the NL Wild Card Game. That night left Arenado not wanting to be seen in public for a few days. It was the only game that center fielder Charlie Blackmon didn't watch on video. He felt his poorly executed late bunt cut short a rally, even though it got him an RBI. It was the catalyst of a long offseason for right-hander Jon Gray, who flamed out of his first playoff start in 1 1/3 innings.
That was all well and good for the winter. But with a new season dawning, it would be quite presumptive to obsess over making amends for that one game, as if another chance in 2018 is a given. Even though it was a postseason trip out of what proved the toughest division in baseball, the Rockies still finished third. And the teams behind them added veteran offensive talent -- first baseman Eric Hosmer for the Padres, and outfielder Andrew McCutchen and third baseman Evan Longoria for the Giants.
"There's confidence from our guys from the sense that we know we have what we need to be successful, but our guys are too competitive to sit back and coast off of a Wild Card loss last year," Blackmon said.
What's the goal?
The Rockies have never won the NL West in their 25 seasons. While it would be nice to begin the postseason with a full series rather than a one-game showdown, the division matters less than advancing in the postseason and eclipsing the memory of the 2007 World Series trip as the franchise's high mark. It's not World Series or bust, but with the Rockies always attempting to balance their payroll and Blackmon and second baseman DJ LeMahieu in the final year of club control, plus Arenado eligible for free agency after 2019, this heart of the lineup might not have much time to bring a World Series dream to Colorado.
What's the plan?
General manager Jeff Bridich stunned many observers by signing free-agent closer Wade Davis for three years and $52 million, plus setup men Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee for three years and $27 million apiece. But it fits neatly into a plan allowed by the team's young starting pitchers. In 2021, righty Chad Bettis will be the first of the team's current rotation to become eligible for free agency. As long as the Rockies can win with an inexpensive rotation, they can put their resources into the bullpen.
The Rockies appear ready to test their self-sustainability plan among the regular position players. Developing first baseman Ryan McMahon and outfielders David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and Mike Tauchman has prompted the Rockies to not retain first baseman Mark Reynolds or right fielder Carlos Gonzalez. It's a gamble, but could pay off big if their younger players' Minor League numbers transfer to the Majors. It happened when the Rockies dealt Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays and released Jose Reyes to insert Trevor Story, who has provided power and defense, but needs to hit for greater average.
What could go wrong?
Gray, lefty Tyler Anderson and Bettis are the rotation leaders. But Bettis, who turns 29 on April 26, is the oldest member, and the 2 1/3 innings that Gray and Anderson combined for in last year's Wild Card Game is the sum total of postseason experience for the starters. While 2017 rookies German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman all had big moments, they'll be facing opponents with a year's worth of information.
But one person's fears is another man's opportunity. "All our guys got a really good feel of what they can do," Gray said. "That's just going to push them forward to want more, take that next step. That's the way it was for me after my first year. They're ready to prove they can be even better."
Who might surprise?
Dahl and Tapia topped prospect lists throughout their rise through the Minors, so if they emerge this season it might be a surprise only in that they haven't done it in the Majors over a full season. Dahl hit .315 with seven homers in 63 games in 2016 but didn't appear in the Majors last season because of a rib injury. Tapia, up and down between the Majors and Triple-A Albuquerque last year, hit .315 over his final 60 at-bats last year. Still, if they win regular jobs, the challenge will be to do it wire to wire.
"There is a difference between a Minor League pitcher and a big-league pitcher, especially an experienced big-league pitcher," Black said. "So when you're talking about McMahon, you're talking about Dahl, you're talking about Tapia, you're talking about Tauchman, all these fellows who are in camp getting a lot of at-bats, there is a difference when the season starts. The only way to get that experience is to play."