Denver, Colorado has been the home of a postseason baseball team for two of the past three seasons. The narrative changed in 2019 — with 71 wins — and the 2020 slate could seriously determine the direction of the franchise.
Nolan Arenado wants to win — right now.
The Colorado Rockies have raised their bar for payroll in recent years. They have paid to acquire and retain players that, in 2017 and 2018, helped them to consecutive trips to the postseason for the first time ever. The momentum slowed in 2019, and team financing was restricted even further. Colorado’s current payroll committed for 2022 is about 60 percent of their 2020 total; it could drop to around 40 percent if Nolan Arenado departs.
In NL MVP voting over the past five years, Arenado has finished eighth, fifth, fourth, third and sixth. He’s won a Gold Glove in all seven seasons of his career, made the All Star Game five times, won four sliver sluggers — and has played in five career postseason games. Trade talks for the 29-year-old third baseman swarmed this offseason, as the superstar expressed a desire to play for championships. He can also opt out after 2021.
Sharing a division with the Los Angeles Dodgers comes with no favors, but the Rockies do retain several pieces of their recent postseason teams. If a few players are able to return to their 2017 or 2018 successes, Colorado may see some forward momentum.
If key arms are able to return to near-peak form, the 2020 Rockies could easily fare better than the marks of current oddsmakers. In 2018, Kyle Freeland finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. Wade Davis led the NL in saves. The team ERA was 4.30—a surmountable run total that Colorado’s batting order could overcome. Rockies hitters averaged 4.69 runs per game that year.
One year later, Colorado held the worst ERA in the National League — an increase of 1.23 points. The Rockies haven’t seen many changes for starters or relievers given team payroll limitations, and will call upon many of the same arms this year.
German Marquez and Jon Gray highlight the starting rotation as a clear-cut one and two. Both Marquez and Gray rely on a fastball/curveball/slider mix; Gray throws his slider more than his curve, and Marquez throws both of his about equally. Gray’s 3.84 ERA edged Marquez’s 4.76 last season, but Marquez’s 174 innings over 28 starts topped Gray’s workload by 24 innings and three starts.
After a tough 2019 campaign — at least compared to 2018 — Kyle Freeland is the presumed third starter. He recorded 202 1/3 innings with a 2.85 ERA in 2018, notably working into the seventh inning of the NL Wild Card game at Wrigley Field. He allowed no runs, and helped Colorado to their first NLDS since 2009.
His 104.1 innings and 6.73 ERA last year told a different story, and led him to Triple-A Albuquerque last June. Freeland adjusted his delivery this winter, cutting a pause in his motion for a more smooth delivery — one he says will allow him to release with greater consistency. Freeland established himself in 2018 with much credit to his four-seam command; assuming that consistency can return in 2020, he may look more like the pitcher of two years ago.
A new reliever-dominant style of postseason baseball could easily be why Adam Ottavino was picked up by the Yankees from Colorado. It could also be why Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich looked to equip Colorado’s bullpen after allowing 11 runs in the 2017 Wild Card Game.
Colorado returned as the visiting Wild Card team in 2018; they allowed one run in an extra-inning affair to eliminate the Chicago Cubs. The Rockies allowed a single run in 13 innings — but only one of three offseason acquisitions pitched.
At the time of signing, the deals for relievers Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee were as motivating for Rockies fans as they were interesting: The high-altitude team was (finally) able to unload some serious cash for pitching. Colorado paid over $100 million in three-year deals for Davis, McGee and Shaw — three arms with notable playoff experience (Davis, 2015 Royals; Shaw, 2016 Indians; McGee, 2017 Rockies/Team USA in the World Baseball Classic).
Oberg recorded a 2.25 ERA last year over 56 innings, earning a promotion from near-league-minimum to a three-year, $13 million extension. About the only thing that slowed Oberg in 2019 was a trip to the injured list on August 17; a blood clot in his right arm ended his season. He returned for three scoreless appearances in Cactus League action, and holds a Rockies career ERA of 3.85.
Should uncertainty arise in 2020 for saves, Oberg may take that over, too.
Uncertainty at closer has stemmed from Wade Davis posting an ERA of 8.65 last year, and recording his lowest innings workload since his 2009 rookie season. Davis led the National League in saves in 2018; he was an all-star in the three seasons before, and earned a World Series ring in 2015. Davis’ contract expires after this year, and a future deal (Colorado or elsewhere) could easily depend on his 2020 performance. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, he threw 3.1 scoreless innings in three spring training appearances.
Colorado entered spring training this year with starters four and five relatively open. Antonio Senzatela reasons well for the fourth, having started more games than Freeland last year. Senzatela posted a roughly equal ERA to Freeland (6.71), but his FIP (5.44) was best among returning starters not named Gray or Marquez.
The youngest of starters, 22-year-old Peter Lambert, made his MLB debut in 2019. He collected 19 starts, the fifth-most among Rockies pitchers. His availability for all of 2020 was put in question, however, after leaving a Cactus League game this March with a forearm strain. COVID-19 postponement has allowed him to recover without missing games, and the late rotation could be largely dependent on if Lambert is cleared to pitch when play resumes.
Right-handers Jeff Hoffman and Chi Chi Gonzalez are presumed late-rotation starters, having combined for 27 starts last year. A spring non-roster invitee is also in the discussion: 36-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, the former Colorado ace that spent time at his Dominican Republic home this past year. He worked out under Rockies supervision at their Dominican headquarters and if rosters are set to expand for 2020, it may reason Jimenez has a better chance at cracking the roster than before.
Offensive firepower reigns supreme in Denver; the high altitude only compliments a potent lineup. Trevor Story, a 2019 Silver Slugger, joins Arenado on the left side of the infield. Charlie Blackmon has been an all-star for the past three years. 2019 All-Star outfielder David Dahl is slated to fill the leadoff role, probably moving Blackmon to third in the order.
The future of this lineup can easily depend on team success, as Arenado has made clear. His 2021 opt-out comes at the same time 27-year-old Story’s current deal is set to expire. Story signed a two-year, $27.5 million deal this past winter, and his continued tenure with the Rockies may follow a similar rationale as Arenado.
Story slashed a .294/.363/.554 last season, and finished 12th in NL MVP voting. Arenado held a .315/.379/.583. The left side of the infield in Colorado is adorned with all star appearances and silver sluggers, only furthered by Arenado’s collection of Platinum Glove awards from the past two seasons.
Charlie Blackmon put up a .314/.364/.576 slash. David Dahl hit for .302/.353/.524. Combine these outfielders with Story and Arenado, and these four 2019 All-Stars could easily bat consecutively in the order.
Ryan McMahon and Daniel Murphy cover the right side of the infield; McMahon is far younger, but Murphy is higher paid. Murphy edged McMahon in all three stats on the batting line last year, but McMahon is a younger player that could establish himself rather quickly. He appeared in 17 games in his 2017 debut season, 91 in 2018, and 141 last year.
Colorado may elect a platoon trio of Ian Desmond, Raimel Tapia and Sam Hilliard in left field. Desmond is the most experienced and highest paid, and the only right handed bat in the mix. Tapia and Hilliard are like McMahon — younger players that could quickly prove to be a dominant force.
Tony Wolters will remain the starting catcher. He is joined by former Pirates catcher Elias Díaz, an offseason acquisition with 101 games of work in Pittsburgh last year. Catcher Drew Butera also remains, a 36-year-old with 513 big league games under his belt over 10 years. Both Díaz and Butera were non-roster invitees to spring training, and one of them figures to be the backup.
Prior to spring training, Colorado was ranked 23rd of 30 teams in World Series odds (175/1). The lines project the Rockies to finish fourth in the NL West, but Rockies fans could find themselves amidst a more optimistic season if key players can return to 2018 successes. The mark of the division rival Dodgers could be insurmountable, but Colorado setting the bar higher in 2020 could provide forward momentum — and possibly retain the current face of the franchise — for the coming years.