DENVER — As it goes with the opening of baseball season, the facts don't matter. The Rockies, everyone predicts, will stink. But for some fans -- not as many as a few years ago -- this is their team. They love Charlie Blackmon's beard and walk-up song, Daniel Bard's blurry fastball and Garrett Hampson's bunt-and-run game when so many hitters socially distance from pitches.
Like many teams, the Rockies face questions, if not more than most. When they open at Coors Field on Thursday against the Los Angeles Dodgers at 2:10 p.m. with 21,000 fans in attendance, it will drive home the differences in the sport. The Dodgers, coming off their first World Series title since 1988, project to win 100-plus games. The Rockies project to lose 100-plus games.
Opening day represents fresh cut grass, peanuts crunching underfoot and reasons for hope. Even for the Rockies that will exist, to some degree, on Thursday, as I acknowledge I have never seen such vitriol from fans while covering the franchise for roughly two decades since 1993.
I asked manager Bud Black this week about beginning the season without Nolan Arenado (traded in February), Kyle Freeland (shoulder strain), Scott Oberg (blood clots, out for season) and former prospect Brendan Rodgers (hamstring).
"It is a gut punch," Black said, while remaining unfailingly optimistic, stressing opportunities for others to step up.
Can the Rockies, told their season is over before it begins, overachieve the first month, motivated by the lack of respect? PECOTA projects them to finish 61-101, which would mark the first 100-loss season in franchise history. They have everything to prove and nothing to lose (except for a lot of games in a division where the Dodgers and Padres are powerhouses).
So what are the things to watch as German Marquez prepares to face Clayton Kershaw at Coors Field? Glad you asked:
Charlie Blackmon is back
He is the bearded face of the Rockies. As all the names disappear, with Trevor Story likely gone through trade during the season or as free agent after, Blackmon remains. He can still hit. The four-time All-Star batted .303 with a .356 on base percentage last season after a scalding start. Blackmon turns 35 in July and his contract runs out after the 2023 season. He could prove to be a Rockies lifer, and a reason for fans to keep their jerseys in seasons like this.
Trevor Story is still here
The Rockies should have traded Trevor Story this offseason because there's no reason to think he will re-sign with the team when he becomes a free agent. Did you notice Francisco Lindor turned down a 10-year, $325 million contract from the Mets this week? He wants $50 million more. It represents a fascinating risk, while acknowledging his leverage once New York acquired him.
What it also does is set the floor for talks for Story. He can ask for whatever Lindor gets. The Rockies are not paying that, and why would Story accept it after what played out with Tulowitzki and Arenado? Until he's gone, savor Story. He represents a top 10 player with a rare blend of power, speed and defense.
German Marquez has ace stuff
Perhaps no recent GM has missed on more signings and trades than Jeff Bridich. Why he is still employed remains a function of the Rockies' infrastructure that is widely panned across baseball (owner Dick Monfort operates as the defacto president and quasi GM). It also why the Rockies have no direction — they are neither in complete rebuild or in winning mode. Bridich, however, did make a good deal in landing German Marquez. Marquez, 26, boasts ace stuff, and anything less than his best this season will make avoiding 100 losses impossible. Marquez has a wicked knuckle curve. His fastball command became inconsistent this spring. That needs that to change quickly or the Rockies will be buried in April.
Daniel Bard provides goosebumps
There was no better story in baseball last season than Daniel Bard. Just call him The Seven-Year Pitch. After a seven-year absence from the big leagues with the yips, Bard earned a contract from the Rockies in a spring tryout and became their closer. He finished 4-2 with a 3.65 ERA and six saves. Nothing about it appears a fluke. He's throwing easy cheese at 99 miles per hour this spring. He will provide the exclamation point in the bullpen with Scott Oberg (bloodclots) out for the season. The hard part will be getting the game to him when the outcome is still in doubt.
No Freeland, what's up Gomber?
This news arrived like a crowbar to the shins. Freeland is out for at least a month, if not two, with a strained shoulder. I love everything about the way Freeland competes. He's the hometown kid from Thomas Jefferson High School, and he never forgets it. When everyone ripped the Rockies this spring, he provided edge and swagger, insisting the team would fight back. Now, he's sidelined. That puts the onus on Austin Gomber -- the one current big leaguer acquired in the Arenado deal -- to deliver. He was solid in spring training, save for one windy start against the Angels. And he doesn't walk guys, giving him a chance. So the rotation sets up like this: Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Jon Gray, who could also be traded this season because he will be a free agent, Gomber and Chi Chi Gonzalez.
The worst thing for a team that struggles to win is blowing games late. It is demoralizing. Bard should be good. There are no obvious answers, though, to pass him the baton. Carlos Estevez and Jairo Diaz have had roller coaster careers, Yency Almonte and Tyler Kinley are talented, but largely unproven, and Mychal Givens, a solid pitcher, learned that working in Coors Field can be about as fun as eating tinfoil. Givens has to be good for this pen to avoid dumpster fire status. And also, it would give the Rockies a chance to trade him for some assets.
Who are these guys?
The Rockies figure to plummet in the standings. But they have a few interesting players worth watching. Ryan McMahon takes over for Arenado, at least on most days. He is crazy talented, but must reduce his alarming strikeouts to become a 30 home run basher. Can left fielder Raimel Tapia contend for a batting title as he predicts? Will C.J. Cron hit 25 home runs as the starting first baseman? Will Brendan Rodgers prove he's a major league player as a starting second baseman? Can Josh Fuentes carve out a role as a reserve first and third baseman?
I have covered the Rockies since 1993 as intern for the Boulder Daily Camera, and a beat writer from 2000-2014 with MLB.com (one season) and The Denver Post. I have never seen more anger and apathy from fans to start a season. They are upset over the lack of spending on free agents and the mindless articulation of the Nolan Arenado trade. Essentially, the Rockies accepted marginal prospects and gave the Cardinals $51 million to move the future Hall of Famer so they could change the payment plan, saving them $25 million on Arenado’s $35 million contract this season.
Listen, I hope opening day is a blast, if no other reason the LoDo businesses need a boost. Baseball is back. Even if after opening day, it looks bleak.