SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Familiar sounds of encouragement and needling filled a practice field at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Monday as Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and the infielders took grounders and Charlie Blackmon and the outfielders gathered their bats and spikes.
Only a few faces that always seemed to be around are missing as Spring Training begins. And big expectations, once non-existent around here, are as much a part of the program as purple pinstripes. After the Rockies made their second straight postseason appearance in 2018, the only familiar feeling the Rockies don't want to return is the season ending before they reach their World Series goal.
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Pitchers (the backbone of recent success) and catchers officially reported for Spring Training on Tuesday, with the first official workout scheduled for Wednesday -- although practically the entire team is already around and working.
The Rockies advanced a step further in 2018 by beating the Cubs in the National League Wild Card Game, but were swept by the Brewers in the NL Division Series. With the exception of second baseman DJ LeMahieu and relief pitcher Adam Ottavino signing with the Yankees, and veteran outfielders Carlos González, Gerardo Parra and Matt Holliday looking for a team, it's essentially the same group trying to get incrementally better.
Lefty Kyle Freeland (17-7, 2.85 ERA in 2018) and righty German Márquez (14-11, 3.77, club-record 230 strikeouts) led a starting staff that lowered its ERA over 2017 from 4.59 to 4.17, lowered the batting average against from .272 to .252, increased strikeouts from 721 to 883, and widened its strikeouts-to-walks ratio from 2.26 to 2.87.
Rather than look for different faces for the next step, the Rockies are trusting lefty Tyler Anderson (7-9, 4.55) to improve and post the first 200-inning season of his career, righty Jon Gray (12-9, 5.12) to shake off the inconsistency of last season, and righties Chad Bettis (5-2, 5.01) and Antonio Senzatela (6-6, 4.38) to prove valuable whether in the rotation or bullpen. They have all the competition they need from righty Jeff Hoffman and No. 3 Rockies prospect (per MLB Pipeline) righty Peter Lambert.
Arenado, Blackmon, Story and the team's one big addition -- first baseman Daniel Murphy -- are being asked to anchor the offense. But how far the Rockies go could depend on some less-experienced players making leaps, much the way pitchers did from '17 to '18.
Outfielder David Dahl missed 2017 with rib and back issues and dealt with injury again in 2018 -- a broken right foot that cost him 54 games, mostly in June and July. But Dahl's .273/.325/.534 slash line during a 2018 season that included nine homers and 27 RBIs in September raised anticipation that he could become another homegrown run producer, like Arenado, Blackmon and Story.
A lineup wild card is at second base, where the Rockies ultimately stayed away from free agency to give shots to left-handed-hitting Ryan McMahon (.232, five homers, 19 RBIs in 91 games as a rookie in 2018), and right-handed-hitting Garrett Hampson (.275, four RBIs, two stolen bases in 24 games) and Pat Valaika (.156, two homers, five RBIs), plus right-handed-hitting No. 1 club and No. 9 overall prospectBrendan Rodgers.
Not only are young players attempting to produce better. Ian Desmond, who moves from first base to the outfield, will look to improve a .236 batting average (although he had a healthy 22 homers and 88 RBIs), and catchers Chris Iannetta (.224), Tony Wolters (.170) and Tom Murphy (.226) will try to provide offense from a traditionally defensive position.