DENVER — Pitcher Kyle Freeland stands outside of a classroom at Johnson Elementary. Kids peek behind a wall, whispering, eyes widening at the presence of the hometown star.
Freeland represents hope, his bullish outlook on the Rockies season formed by his growing resume and sharpened edge. There are numerous reasons to like the Rockies' chances this season, not the least of which is the withering National League West. Let's not forget this team is talented, deeper than most, and struck with a sense of urgency given the growing uncertainty around Nolan Arenado's future beyond this season.
"It's something we are aware of," shortstop Trevor Story told Denver7. "You're talking about one of the greatest players, really, of all time. We all know what he means to our team."
They know the window to win could close on their fingers prematurely. They also recognize that baseball pundits are ready to fix their gaze in a new direction, a stance strengthened by Las Vegas' predictions of an 82-win season. It doesn't help that two weeks prior to spring training the Rockies have watched all-star second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and elite reliever Adam Ottavino defect to the New York Yankees with their lone marquee addition Daniel Muprhy left to man first base and hit anywhere from "first to fifth in the lineup," according to manager Bud Black.
"The fact is we are going to pick each other up. Just because we lost a couple of pieces doesn't mean we are a bad team," Freeland told Denver7. "We got Murphy, our bullpen is stacked and I think our starting rotation will be even better. The (critics) have been saying for two-and-half years that (the Rockies would fall). We don't listen to it. It's pointless to listen to it. You just don't know what's going to happen."
The Rockies made history last season by reaching the postseason in back-to-back years. A third berth comes with a different framework.
"Playoffs are no longer the goal," said starting second baseman candidate Ryan McMahon. "That is the expectation."
For all the goosepbumps provided by knocking out the Chicago Cubs, the National League Division Series conjures ugly memories of a lifeless offense. Can the Rockies duck under the velvet rope and improve on last year's success that ended with a bitter finish? My Denver7 reasons for Hope and Nope for the 2019 season:
Reasons for Hope:
1) Freeland, ace: Kyle Freeland is an ace in every way. He gulps innings, performs best when it matters most, and never stops learning. He credits working with catcher Chris Iannetta for microwaving his development and increasing his trust in his changeup and sinker. Freeland went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA and a 8.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) last season. The Rockies don't need better from Freeland, only similar production in at least 185 innings.
2) Marquez, on second thoughts: German Marquez showed resolve and attitude rarely seen from a Rockies starter, providing Colorado with its best one-two punch in team history. For Marquez, like Freeland, repeating success remains critical. The Rockies can ill afford regression. It means anything less than 185 innings from Marquez could tax an already vulnerable bullpen.
3) Nolan is Nolan: The possibility exists this is Nolan Arenado's last season with the Rockies. And if the team goes to arbitration with him, it will increase the likelihood this is it as it will signal little progress on a longterm deal and potentially impact the relationship with the player. Regardless, it will not affect Arenado. He is a baseball rat, eating and sleeping the game. He is one of the few players to impact the game on both sides of the ball. Arenado will play well. But for much longer in a Rockies uniform hangs over this season.
4) Story time: Lost in Arenado's excellence is that Trevor Story might have been the Rockies' best player a year ago. He played Gold Glove-caliber defense, swatted 85 extra-base hits and stole 27 bases in 33 attempts. Story's ability to adjust offensively -- reducing strikeouts and taking pitches on the outer half of the plate to right field -- transformed him into an All-Star. He is in his prime, and should string together several big seasons.
5) New eyes on O: In a sentence that most figured would never be written, the Rockies were submarined by their offense last season. They reached the abyss in overall batting average (.256) and on the road (.225). The Rockies bottomed out in the playoffs, scoring two runs and striking out 30 times in three games. Dave Magadan takes over as the new hitting coach. He knows the NL West, and will be charged with reviving an offense that must avoid such dramatic highs and lows.
Reasons for Nope:
1) Bullpen issues: The loss of Ottavino stings. He produced one of the best seasons ever by a Rockies reliever. His ability to produce strikeouts was breathtaking. Can Scott Oberg and Seunghwan Oh fill the void? Both were strong last year, but not over a full season. It goes without saying that the Rockies need rebound performances from four underwhelming arms: Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Chris Rusin and Mike Dunn. Two of them must produce at a high level. It wouldn't hurt for the Rockies to add another arm over the next two weeks as insurance.
2) Regression to the mean: No one questions the talent of Freeland and Marquez. But linear growth is difficult in baseball for pitchers coming off career years. Both compete in a way that is admirable. They must maintain their health for the rotation to reach its potential.
3) Nolan factor: Arenado will produce. There's no reason to think he will not. But will the team suffer and get dragged on if trade rumors mushroom in June and July? It's a topic that will not go away without a longterm deal.
4) Lineup questions: D.J. LeMahieu is a winning player. He is calmer than a lagoon, and is steady. Replacing him will be more difficult than most expect, especially defensively. But the Rockies have options: Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson and top prospect Brendan Rodgers. I wonder if McMahon and Hampson will keep seat warm until Rodgers is ready in August, or perhaps sooner. The lack of viable bench is an issue. I would bring back Gerardo Parra as protection.
5) Gray matter: Jon Gray's failures in pressure defined last season. Can he recover and realize his potential in Denver? That's no longer certain. But as a third or fourth starter logging innings, he remains valuable. Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson will be counted as well. The X-factor is Jeff Hoffman, who might be getting his last chance to succeed in Colorado. If he doesn't win a spot, the Rockies should use him as trade bait.