SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Here are some roster questions currently facing the Rockies, who open Cactus League play Sunday against the D-backs.
1. To be a contender this season, Colorado manager Bud Black will have to perform alchemy with his daily lineup. How will he mix players?
The Rockies are set at shortstop (Trevor Story), right field (Charlie Blackmon) and left field (Raimel Tapia). If one or both non-roster veterans play first base (C.J. Cron and/or Greg Bird), there’s no positional switching beyond designated hitter in Interleague Play. And Ryan McMahon will be an important figure.
Otherwise, there are options:
• Right-handed-hitting Garrett Hampson and left-handed-hitting Sam Hilliard are center fielders. Hampson has an edge in experience, while Hilliard has greater power. Hampson also plays middle infield, especially second base.
• Is it finally time for longtime prospect Brendan Rodgers at second base? If not, it gets fuzzy. Does Black move McMahon from third base back to second? Does Hampson play there, thus leaving center to Hilliard? Could non-roster invitee Chris Owings claim third or second, with McMahon taking the other spot?
• Can Josh Fuentes, who played a capable first base, can also play third and batted .306 last year, hit his way onto the field?
The Rockies expect McMahon to possess the 24-homer bat that took off in the middle of 2019, not the .215-hitting, high-strikeout one of the condensed '20 season. He is important to the lineup, whether he plays third (his preferred spot) or elsewhere.
“For me, he hasn’t played a lot of third base,” Black said. “But if you talk to ‘Mac,’ who has played a lot of third base at the amateur level and the professional level, he feels he’s best at third. I’ve seen him mostly at second, a lot at first. I think he’s very good at those three positions.
“I feel very confident with him at third.”
2. It makes sense that left-hander Austin Gomber, who will start Sunday's Cactus League opener, secures the fifth spot in the rotation. Don’t underrate the fact that he came from the Cardinals in the Nolan Arenado trade.
But right-hander Ryan Castellani and non-roster righties Dereck Rodríguez and Chi Chi González will make pushes. Will any of these three pitch well enough this spring to end up in the rotation?
3. Strong springs from two right-handed setup men who were affected by the strangeness of 2020 -- Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz -- would help the Rockies feel good enough to dream of contending.
Díaz missed time during last year's Summer Camp after testing positive for COVID-19 and never found his form. A slider that had been a good pitch for him in 2019 was punished. Estévez’s ’20 took a downturn when he was hit on the right hand with a line drive on Aug. 16. The shortened season meant both were forced into action when rest may have done them good.
It would be hard to work a bullpen without Estévez and Díaz joining Daniel Bard, Scott Oberg and Mychal Givens as the main lead protectors. Yency Almonte leads a group of intriguing, less-experienced relievers, but expected quality from Estévez and Díaz would make the Rockies less dependent on them.
Colorado comfort zone for Rodríguez
Rodríguez, 28, broke in with the Giants in 2018, and gained an affinity for Coors Field. He made his debut in Denver, allowing four runs (one earned) in 3 1/3 innings on May 29 that year. The right-hander also had one of his best starts there that season, tossing six innings of one-run ball on Sept. 4.
Rodríguez is happy for what he sees as a more conventional situation with the Rockies after being admittedly thrown off by the Giants’ avant-garde use of pitchers under manager Gabe Kapler in 2020. Before that, Rodríguez started in the Majors playing for the more conventional Bruce Bochy.
Last season, Rodríguez pitched only four innings over two games, giving up six runs on 10 hits and three walks.
“I was there when 'Boch' was there, and he would let you know ahead of time if you're going to get into a game,” said Rodríguez, who will start Monday against the Dodgers in Glendale, Ariz. “As a starter, you were a starter, and as a reliever, you were a reliever. Last year was a little different. You could have been starting one game and then relieving the next game, and back and forth. It was a little weird.
“I’ve spoken with the coaches and staff, and it seems it's really different over here. They're more vocal with what they're going to do. They let you know what their plan is.”