DENVER -- The Rockies enter 2021 with rare quality in their starting rotation, but an unexpected problem: a weak offense.
Without third baseman Nolan Arenado (traded to St. Louis) and 2019 All-Star outfielder David Dahl (non-tendered in a surprise, payroll-based move), the lineup hardly projects as the type to push a team into contention. Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon are the remaining elite run producers (though even Blackmon struggled in 2020 after his strong start).
How is Colorado in this predicament?
As the 2019 season ended, the Rockies were up-front in stating that a loaded payroll prevented them from doing much, but there would be payroll relief after '20. But when the pandemic shortened the season and forced games without fans, Rockies owner and CEO Dick Monfort warned that this offseason would be unusual. Well, the offseason went from unusual to heart-wrenching when the Rockies dealt Arenado, who had six years and $199 million left on his contract, to the Cardinals.
There is still time before Opening Day to add through free agency, and the unusual offseason circumstances may put the Rockies in position to find free-agency bargains. But for now, the club is looking at the prospects in the organization and hoping to uncover gems like Blackmon and Story, who were not ranked highly on prospect lists but developed into All-Stars.
That’s a lot to carry for a rotation that pitches home games in Coors Field’s hitter-friendly environment. But there is a track record.
Lefty Austin Gomber, the only Major Leaguer acquired from the Cardinals for Arenado, has a solid fastball-curveball combination and could boost the back of the rotation.
Offensive quality and depth
It used to be that the Rockies’ offense sparked many arguments. They always did well in traditional stat categories, but detractors could point to some advanced figures in which even Rox teams with the best records ranked poorly. Detractors pointed to the home-road splits; Colorado could simply tell them to try hitting at altitude, travel to sea level, spend six months going back and forth -- then get back to them.
Well, the 2020 season left the Rockies with no retorts. They ranked 25nd in the Majors in on-base percentage, 22nd in home runs and 18th in OPS, and they went 12-18 at home.
The offense heard traditional criticisms during postseason appearances in 2017 and ’18, then didn’t adequately replace DJ LeMahieu after ’18. Even worse, their fans spent two years watching him being lauded for taking advantage of Yankee Stadium after hearing criticism of LeMahieu for doing the same at Coors Field.
Now, while folks debate how Arenado’s numbers will translate to Busch Stadium and whether Dahl can stay healthy in Texas, the Rockies must figure out how to fill a lineup. Beyond Raimel Tapia’s development at the leadoff spot, it’s hard to find a hitter other than Story or Blackmon coming off a good year. Ian Desmond, who sat out 2020, could help if he finds offensive consistency.
Strong bullpens have been a common thread in successful Rockies teams, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2020. Almost unfathomably, the team pitched much of the season without a left-hander while the Dodgers and Padres -- the two postseason participants from the NL West -- could place up to a half-dozen lefty relievers on their lineup cards.
The Rockies also need experienced help from the right side, even after trading for Mychal Givens (Orioles) at the Trade Deadline. They started that process by acquiring Robert Stephenson from the Reds while parting with righty reliever Jeff Hoffman in a classic change-of-scenery swap. Daniel Bard will attempt to build on his inspiring comeback, and Scott Oberg hopes to return healthy from thoracic outlet surgery. But without proven help, the Rockies will be dependent on Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz shaking off inconsistencies of 2020, plus Yency Almonte and Tyler Kinley not experiencing backward steps.
The Rockies picked up a power righty in Jordan Sheffield in the Rule 5 Draft. Sheffield was a first-round choice of the Dodgers in the 2016 MLB Draft.
Gray attempted to pitch through pain in the shoulder before shutting down in early September with 6.89 ERA in eight starts. His injury left two open spots, but no one adequately filled them.
Rookie Ryan Castellani had impressive sequences, but a 5.82 ERA and 26 walks in 43 1/3 innings showed he needs greater sharpness. Righty Chi Chi González never found his form after an early-season arm issue, and righty Peter Lambert missed the season because of Tommy John surgery. Ryan Rolison, the No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline and a first-round Draft pick in 2018, figures to compete for a job.
Gomber, who is preparing as a starter, helps improve the depth. The Rockies’ success with veteran starters has been mixed, but this might be a place to add.
Feb. 11: Signed Bird to Minors deal with spring invite
Greg Bird signed a Minor League contract that includes an invitation to Spring Training with the Rockies -- his hometown club. Bird, who attended Grandview (Colo.) High School and debuted with the Yankees in 2015, could find opportunity at first base as he looks to bounce back from injuries that derailed a promising career.
Feb. 1: Acquired five players from Cardinals for Arenado
After much speculation, the Rockies dealt Nolan Arenado and cash considerations to the Cardinals for left-hander Austin Gomber, third baseman Elehuris Montero, shortstop Mateo Gil, and right-handers Tony Locey and Jake Sommers.
Dec. 10: Sheffield taken in Rule 5 Draft
The Rockies charted Sheffield for three games -- save opportunities covering four innings -- in Arizona instructional ball. Sheffield's fastball ranged from 94-100 mph and averaged 96 mph. A first-round MLB Draft pick (36th overall) in 2016, Sheffield has been transitioned to relief work. He has a high strikeout rate and can be effective in the Majors if he trims his walks.
Dec. 2: Dahl, Wolters, González non-tendered
The big shocker was David Dahl, an All-Star in 2019. While his injuries were frequent -- a right-shoulder injury marred his 2020 -- he is a former top pick who has at times been a force in the Rockies' offense. The Rockies are looking for more offensive thump than Troy Wolters has provided, and Chi Chi González has helped the rotation and bullpen but struggles with the strike zone in 2020.
Dec. 1: Signed Elias Díaz, Jairo Díaz to one-year contracts
Elias Díaz ($1.2 million, $300 million available via incentives) represented a change at the catcher position, since the club non-tendered previous starter Tony Wolters the following day. Jairo Díaz ($1.1 million) had an up-and-down 2020, but the Rockies like his arm and are trying to hold on to as many relievers as possible.
Nov. 25: Stephenson, top 30 prospect netted for Hoffman
The Rockies dealt Jeff Hoffman and their fourth-round pick in 2020, right-hander Case Williams, to the Reds for Robert Stephenson and left-handed-hitting outfield prospect Jameson Hannah, who slots in as their No. 14 prospect. The deal began the process of remaking the bullpen, and it added a prospect with a solid hit tool and usable speed.
Nov. 1: Desmond reinstated
Multi-position veteran Ian Desmond returned after choosing not to play in 2020, but what will his role be in '21?
Going into Spring Training 2020, left field looked to be a competition between Tapia and Desmond. Now Tapia has the edge. As the roster stands, Desmond could give the Rockies an experienced bench player/part-time starter. And offseason moves around the diamond could crystalize Desmond’s role.
Oct. 28: Rockies buy out Murphy’s option
The Rockies declined Daniel Murphy’s $12 million option for 2021, and paid an $8 million buyout. The expected move adds to an expensive year of buyouts on contracts that didn’t work with any kind of consistency for the Rockies. Other buyouts went to relief pitcher Wade Davis ($1 million), Jake McGee ($2 million) and Bryan Shaw ($2 million).
Oct. 29: Harvey outrighted
The Rockies removed right-hander Joe Harvey from their Major League roster, and Harvey has elected to become a Minor League free agent. Harvey, who joined the Rockies in 2019 in a trade with the Yankees, entered Summer Camp as a non-roster player but worked his way on to the active roster. But he lasted just 3 1/3 innings before sustaining a right forearm strain that ended his season. Expect the Rockies to try to re-sign him to a Minor League deal for much-needed depth.