The high point of the Rockies’ season may have been in March, shortly after the lockout, when they signed Kris Bryant for seven years and $182 million. But the investment would not pay off in 2022.
After the lockout, general manager Bill Schmidt scrambled to fill holes -- starter Chad Kuhl, shortstop José Iglesias and reliever Alex Colomé were signed as well. Beyond needing immediate help, Schmidt needed to make a splash in part to give core players incentive to stick with the building plan. Bryant’s signing became part of the motivation for lefty starter Kyle Freeland and third baseman Ryan McMahon to sign contract extensions.
But a back injury sent Bryant to the injured list twice during the first half, and a left foot injury ended his season in the second half with just 42 games played and five home runs, none at Coors Field. And a lot of other things didn’t go right. Freeland and righty Germán Márquez struggled from the beginning. And the signings of spring didn’t solve the lack of depth, which would be exposed.
It added up to a 68-94 season, the Rockies’ worst since 2015, and a last-place finish in the National League West.
On April 26, as the Rockies were preparing for the third of four games at Philadelphia, Bryant and head athletic trainer Keith Dugger entered manager Bud Black’s office. Minutes later, Bryant was scratched from the lineup and the Rockies -- 10-6 at the time of the meeting -- began their precipitous fall.
Two trips to the IL were followed by a brief return where his presence sparked dreams of the Rockies climbing to .500 and possibly being active at the Trade Deadline. But the foot injury flared in Milwaukee during the Rockies’ first series after the All-Star break. The lineup simply didn’t function without him.
Already, McMahon and catcher Elias Díaz were pressing after signing big, new contracts. Randal Grichuk, acquired from the Blue Jays during Spring Training, was going through a topsy-turvy adjustment to Denver. First baseman C.J. Cron, who hit 21 homers and batted .298 in the first half, admittedly pressed and batted .197 with eight homers after the break. Charlie Blackmon had more homers through July 27 (16) than all of 2021 (13). He didn’t hit another the rest of the way.
What we learned
It was more what was reinforced -- a team lacking in depth can quickly find itself in trouble. Bryant’s wasn’t the only absence the Rockies couldn’t withstand.
The loss of righty reliever Tyler Kinley (right elbow flexor tendon), who had a 0.75 ERA in 25 appearances as the primary righty setup man, undid the bullpen before the All-Star break. A second-half blow was the loss of primary lefty Lucas Gilbreath (elbow). Much of the second half involved testing to see which young relievers can be depended upon in case depth issues flare next season.
Black demonstrated in 2017 with Freeland, Márquez, Antonio Senzatela (whose 2022 ended in August because of a left knee injury) and Jeff Hoffman (now with the Reds) that he could introduce inexperienced starters and keep them competitive. But Ryan Feltner, who had high and low moments, was all Black had to work with in 2022.
Righty Peter Lambert (return from 2020 Tommy John surgery) and lefties Ryan Rolison (shoulder) and Helcris Olivarez (shoulder) didn’t throw a single Major League pitch, and the latter two didn’t pitch in the Minors.
Márquez and Freeland entered the season believing they had to grow if they were to continue succeeding. The growth was painful, and the final numbers show it. But rather than abandoning changes and going with strategies and pitch mixes they used in the past, they stayed the course -- with Freeland refining his pitch mix and keeping it in the strike zone, and Márquez dedicating himself to his sinker and changeup on the arm side to counterbalance the fastball/slider/curve mix on the glove side.
Both had their moments in the second half, Freeland more consistently than Márquez. But they resisted the temptation to go back to the familiar, and left with confidence. Should they put it together next year, not only will their numbers be better but their example will resonate with others in the rotation.
Is the progress of two rotation leaders as fresh as, say, the introduction of shortstop of the future Ezequiel Tovar during the final weeks? No. But having a set and productive top of the rotation will put the team in a better position in 2023.
Area for improvement
The top of the team’s wish list is a left-handed-hitting center fielder with the speed to play shallow, yet cover Coors’ spacious center field. If he’s a leadoff hitter, it’s even better. Such an addition would allow Yonathan Daza, who had a .301 average and .349 on-base percentage in the most playing time of his career, to float as a fourth outfielder.
But there are other improvements to make. The rotation needs a proven arm, the Rockies will have to either re-sign or replace free-agent setup man Carlos Estévez and will at least need to sign another lefty to work alongside Gilbreath.
On the rise
Second baseman Brendan Rodgers finished the year at .266. There was a lengthy, sizzling middle of the season in between slumps early and late. Rodgers is still developing defensively, but the advance numbers smiled upon him. According to Fangraphs, his 24 defensive runs saved were second in the Majors among all players, behind the 24 of Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes.
No one on the roster came close to closer Daniel Bard in this category. Bard finished with 34 saves in 37 attempts, a 1.79 ERA and 69 strikeouts to 25 walks. Most impressive was his ability to produce despite large gaps in opportunity, since his closing opportunities were few and far between because of the team’s struggles. He made just 23 appearances after the All-Star break -- 14 fewer than MLB saves leader Emmanuel Clase (42 total) of the Guardians after the break. Yet, Bard converted 15-of-16 saves and posted a 1.40 ERA after the break.