For a few nights earlier this month, the Rockies offered hope that they were going to break out of their two-year decline. By winning the last two in a three-game set, they became the first team in 2020 to defeat the Dodgers in a series.
Their 20-20 record at the time was a comedown from their 11-3 start. But the Rockies had every reason to believe they could grab one of eight National League playoff spots.
“We were like, ‘OK, this is our time. We need to go,’” said Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela, the winning pitcher in the first of those contests.
Instead, the Rockies are done when the regular season ends Sunday afternoon. After dropping both ends of a Friday doubleheader against the D-backs, 4-0 and 11-5, at Chase Field, the postseason appearances of 2017 and ‘18 seem a long way in the past, as the Game 1 loss officially eliminated them from postseason contention. More concerning, the Rockies made few changes after going 71-91 in 2019 -- and the record and the assessment sound similar.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing at the same time,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We just couldn’t get it going in these last 30 games. It seemed like whether it was offensively or, maybe, some big outs out of the bullpen, we just couldn’t seem to win three, four, five in a row. It was just a little bit too choppy.”
The inability to sync the various elements was a theme in ‘19. However, there was a subtle but important difference in ‘20. Much of last year’s blame fell on the pitchers, with the 5.87 starter ERA and 5.18 bullpen ERA. However, upon closer inspection, the best players of a touted offense slumped during a 3-12 start and a 6-19 July.
The big difference this time is the starters, who keyed the two postseason trips, rebounded. Righty Germán Márquez’s 4.10 ERA was due mainly to one bad start. Márquez, lefty Kyle Freeland (3.69 ERA) and Senzatela (3.13) all ranked high in the NL in quality starts and ground-ball-related stats. Jon Gray, who, with Márquez, was coming off a solid 2019, struggled through a right-shoulder injury that ended his season, but he is part of a foundation.
“The three guys at the top, and if you bring Jon back healthy -- we know what Jon can do -- you have four guys we feel good about every night,” said Black, who has a detailed list of candidates for the final spot.
However, correcting the offense and the bullpen will test the mettle of general manager Jeff Bridich and owner, chairman and CEO Dick Monfort.
The Rockies disappointed in terms of power, production with runners in scoring position and on-base performance.
Part of the problem this year was star third baseman Nolan Arenado sustained a left shoulder injury in the season’s fifth game and came nowhere near his past production levels, and outfielder David Dahl tried to play through a right shoulder injury to awful results. Ryan McMahon did not follow up on a 2019 that showed power potential (though he did hit his eighth homer of the year in Game 2), and Charlie Blackmon tailed off after a hot start.
While Raimel Tapia, Garrett Hampson and Josh Fuentes took advantage of playing time, their styles are more geared to setting the table than home runs and RBIs. Should they re-sign outfielder Kevin Pillar, a Trade Deadline acquisition, they’ll have another productive player but not the fence-buster that could transform the lineup.
The bullpen never recovered from a turbulent start. Scott Oberg’s recurring blood clots, which required surgery on Wednesday, and Wade Davis’ shoulder injury during the season’s first week deprived the Rockies of their eighth- and ninth-inning options. Whether it was overuse during the stretch run or simply some struggles, the late innings were a mess. After James Pazos and Phillip Diehl struggled to the point of getting optioned to the alternate training site, the Rockies finished the season with nary a lefty in the bullpen.
What to do about all this -- in an offseason after a year without revenue from fans in the park -- is the question.
Power is expensive. Already, Arenado is due $35 million and Blackmon $21 million, with time on their contracts beyond next year. Story is set for $13.75 million to end his two-year deal. Outfielder Ian Desmond, who didn’t play this year, is on the books for $8 million.
Will the Rockies need to trade part of their home-built core, and risk either the perception or the reality of a step back, for quality and depth?
If trades are the preferred method, other teams will come for pitchers Freeland (second year of arbitration) and Senzatela (first). But it’s hard to imagine the Rockies parting with them, especially Freeland, a Denver native. The team resisted overtures for Gray last winter.
Does that mean dealing Arenado? It became a hot subject during the offseason, after Arenado expressed his displeasure with the front office, but it went to the backburner because of the strange circumstances of this season. Or do the Rockies entertain offers for Story, who has grown into a beloved figure?
There are a couple positive factors for the payroll budget: A new, multiyear television contract with AT&T Sports Networks, terms undisclosed, begins next season. Daniel Murphy’s two-year, $24 million deal will be finished, and the Rockies are done with the $106 million deals for three relievers all released this year -- Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw.