5 key questions facing Rockies this winter

October 11th, 2021

PHOENIX -- A late-season 7-2 road trip toward the end of a mostly torturous season away from Coors Field, with wins in five of six games over National League East contenders Atlanta and Philadelphia, represented the best days of the Rockies’ 74-87 performance in 2021. But the next-to-best days were more meaningful.

Three of their last four home series came against the NL West champion Giants and the Wild Card-winning Dodgers, and the Rockies went 1-8. The defeats at the hands of the top two teams in the division left Colorado with no illusions about the gap between fourth place and playoff contention.

Games against the Giants were mostly blowouts against a veteran-led offense and a savvy pitching staff. The losses to the Dodgers were tight against a seasoned club, but the Rockies’ holes were exposed.

“We need to get a little more impact in our offense,” new general manager Bill Schmidt said. “And the bullpen, that's always [going to] be here.”

“They're good teams, they've both won over 100 games, so they're talented,” manager Bud Black said. “So, first of all, we’ve got to try to catch up a little bit on the talent side. If we don't catch up on the talent side, those games that we’re in, it comes down to a pitch here and an at-bat there, so that's what needs to take place.”

Third baseman Ryan McMahon, second baseman Brendan Rodgers and catcher Elias Díaz showed dramatic growth and still have room for improvement. By the end of the season, relievers such as Carlos Estévez, Tyler Kinley, Robert Stephenson and Lucas Gilbreath were good more often than not.

Still, the Rockies must do more than wait for growth. Here are five areas they must address if they’re going to make a dramatic leap in 2022.

1. Build where people can’t see
Fan skepticism over an internal hire as GM is expected and justified until proven otherwise. Schmidt has already helped foster a major increase in the research and development staff, and already in the pipeline are changes to coaching plans in the Minors and growth in sports psychology.

But after former GM Jeff Bridich and other club officials resigned, the Rockies operated as a stripped-down front office. While it allowed Schmidt to pull the front office together and give those remaining a voice they might not have had in the past, Schmidt must look outside the organization and hire people with new ideas for key roles to eliminate any staleness.

2. Don’t leave the rotation to chance
Remember, the ’17 and ’18 teams were subpar offensively under advanced metrics, but the Rockies had a shot in October both of those years.

All-Star Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Austin Gomber are a solid top four. Colorado took a step toward keeping the group together by signing Senzatela for five years and $50.5 million, but re-signing righty Jon Gray, soon to be a free agent, hasn’t happened even though both sides say they would like a reunion. Still, starting pitching depth is a problem.

Peter Lambert should be healthy after returning from Tommy John surgery near the end of the season. Lefty Ryan Rolison, the Rockies’ top pitching prospect and No. 3 overall per MLB Pipeline, could be ready (although his innings load will be watched). No. 22 prospect Ryan Feltner pitched from High-A to the Majors this year. The Rockies hope No. 14 prospect Helcris Olivarez, in his second year on the 40-man roster, can accelerate his development. However, an experienced swing pitcher would be a smart sign, preferably on a Minor League deal.

3. Go for the big outfield bats early
Free agent Kyle Schwarber has the swing, the muscle, and even the beard that would look quite good in Purple Pinstripes. The Rockies could end their nightmare of watching Chris Taylor destroy their hopes at Coors by signing him. Nick Castellanos (if he opts out of his Reds contract) and Michael Conforto also have appeal.

4. Keep, and try to find
Signing first baseman C.J. Cron for two years and $14 million locked up the team’s best offensive player in ’21. It’s development time for Colton Welker, who debuted this year, No. 4 prospect Elehuris Montero, No. 6 prospect Michael Toglia (their first-round Draft pick in 2019, whom the Rockies believe can be a Gold Glove first baseman) and No. 19 prospect Grant Lavigne.

Righty reliever Jhoulys Chacín, signed this year for the aforementioned swing role before he showed value in late relief, is a good candidate to be retained. The Rockies should also try to score big with a short contract on a reliever. The $6 million they spent on Greg Holland in ’17 resulted in 41 saves that helped make a postseason berth possible.

5. Don’t skimp at shortstop
Shortstop Trevor Story is likely gone. If the Rockies don’t land Story or one of the other highly sought-after shortstops in a strong free agent group, they must sign a stellar defender.

Colorado's pitching staff is heavy on forcing ground balls. When analyzing past Rockies contenders, converting grounders to double plays is second only to pitchers staying in the strike zone. The club likes No. 11 prospect Ezequiel Tovar as a strong defensive shortstop prospect, but he needs time.