DENVER — The Rockies reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history in 2017-2018. Then came the hard part: maintaining success.
It never comes easily for this franchise, not with the challenge of pitching well and creating waves of prospects to balance the payroll and camouflage free agent mistakes. The Rockies plummeted from grace with a thud last season, winning 71 games. A number of reasons exist to explain the spiral: injuries, slumps, and roster decisions that backfired, namely, letting D.J. LeMahieu walk and adding Daniel Murphy.
A dormant offseason — Colorado was the only team not to spend a single dollar in free agency — frustrated fans. The fractured relationship between general manager Jeff Bridich and superstar Nolan Arenado has cast a shadow over the opening of spring training as pitchers and catchers report Tuesday. This is the time for renewal, for fresh-cut grass, peanuts crunching underfoot, and hope. That's a tough sell after the last 12 months. Yet, baseball can be unpredictable. No reason to surrender before the first pitch.
That said, my most intriguing storylines:
Nolan Arenado told Denver7 that Bridich "is very disrespectful." He feels like trust has been broken — not over trade rumors — but over the lack of upgrades and conversations about his role on and off the field. Arenado will show up this week, roll up his sleeves and go to work. It's who he is. However, it's naive to believe his relationship will be repaired with the general manager, casting doubt about his future. Arenado can opt out after next season, a clause he didn't ask for but the Rockies provided. It allows them to get out from underneath his contract more than anything else. However, it complicates trade scenarios. Acquiring teams want to know if they are trading for a rental or a longterm solution — which impacts the offers. Also, Arenado controls the process with a no-trade clause. What does it mean? My expectation is that Arenado shuts down talk about staying or leaving, puts up huge numbers and becomes a strong candidate to be moved in July if the team is not contending.
Of all the issues last season, the most troubling was former Denver prep star Kyle Freeland dissolving before the team's eyes. The numbers illustrate the startling decline: 17-7, 2.85 ERA to 3-11, 6.73 ERA. Freeland landed in the minors last summer in an attempt to fix his mechanics. This offseason, he feels he found the answers. He has removed the pause in his leg kick, something designed to allow him to repeat his delivery and throw more strikes. Freeland competes. He is determined to bounce back. Freeland winning 17 games is unrealistic. But he can become a functional fourth-fifth starter, logging 175 innings. He frankly has to for the Rockies to achieve a winning record. German Marquez can be an ace if his ERA sinks under 4.00, and Jon Gray was solid last season, especially at home. Freeland returning as a solid piece to take pressure off Peter Lambert is critical.
The Rockies relievers were awful last season. Any return to adequacy centers on this group. Relievers are volatile stocks, year-to-year ventures. In the case of Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee, they have both struggled in back-to-back seasons. Thinking they will improve seems risky at best, and misguided at worst. Wade Davis is more likely to make a U-turn. But manager Bud Black needs to be realistic. Shaw and McGee must earn roles or be cut, regardless of their salaries. And Davis has to show through performance he can regain the closer's role. Not adding arms this offseason leaves Colorado vulnerable in a division where every other team got better.
With Arenado's longterm future murky, shortstop Trevor Story is quickly becoming the face of the franchise. For how long? He is signed through arbitration the next two years before becoming a free agent. But if Arenado is moved just as Troy Tulowitzki before him, will Story want to stay? He is one of the best players in baseball. A superstar in every way. While all eyes will be on Arenado, don't lose sight of Story's status and how he reacts to Arenado's situation.
All Dahl; Shape of Murphy
David Dahl made the All-Star team last season. When healthy, he is terrific. His injuries have been fluky, but availability is a skill at the pro level. The Rockies need him on the field, namely in center. He has never played more than 100 games in a season. To contend, the Rockies need 140 from him. Charle Blackmon is a great player who is starting to show signs of age. He turns 34 this season. He can hit 30 home runs, but is better served to do it in 135 games to save his legs. This is only realistic if Daniel Murphy hits. He was a huge disappointment last year, failing to hit his first home run at Coors Field until after the all-star break. And his defense was abysmal. If he shows up to spring in shape, that will be telling as the Rockies look to rebound.