DENVER — The Rockies have quietly become Colorado's most successful pro sports team. They are seeking their third straight playoff berth. There are babies born after Feb. 7, 2016 who have never seen a Broncos postseason game. While the Broncos attempt to regain traction, the Rockies, entering their 27th season, continue climbing toward a pair of elusive firsts: a National League West title and a World Series crown.
Early postseason exits the past two seasons have created an edge, and an understanding of the value of a division crown. The Rockies can say with a straight face they can contend for a championship. They are not among the favorites. That goes to the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers, who crushed Colorado's dreams last fall. But Colorado remains in the conversation. And yes, this sentence continues to feel awkward to type; it is because of their starting pitching.
Kyle Freeland takes the ball Thursday in the season opener against the Miami Marlins. Freeland is everything you want in an ace. Especially the Rockies. He pitches with attitude and is fearless in altitude. He can win anywhere. He wants the biggest assignments, and delivered his best when it mattered most in eliminating the Chicago Cubs in the wild card game.
While Freeland is a Colorado native, Nolan Arenado is homegrown. Keeping him in the fold with an eight-year, $260-million contract brought a sense of relief and confidence for fans. Arenado chose to stay, reflecting his belief in the Rockies' future. The last two seasons changed the perception of the franchise. Can this season change history? My Denver7 storylines:
1) Will the starters keep rolling?
The Rockies strength is the rotation. Freeland and German Marquez provide one of the best one-two punches in the National League. Anything less than 390 innings from the pair will be devastating. The X-factor remains Jon Gray. Talent is not the question. He has struggled with pressure and expectations. There's no reason he can't be good in the regular season. For the Rockies to win the West, Gray must deliver a career year.
2) Third and long game
Having Arenado in the center of the lineup for the rest of his career — a distinct possibility — is calming. He failed to perform in the playoffs like he wanted, but without him, the Rockies don't sniff the postseason. Few players impact the game on both sides of the ball on a daily basis like Arenado. For the Rockies to win the West, he needs his best, meaning his first NL MVP trophy.
3) Long and short of it
Trevor Story is one of the game's top 50 players. He posted 85 extra-base hits with 27 stolen bases last season. Few players combine his speed and power. He was the Rockies' best player last season. His evolved approach offensively — using the opposite field — shaved his strikeouts. If that continues — and no reason to think it won't — he will be among the NL's top 10 performers.
4) Pen problems
The Rockies optimism is real. While hosting on 104.3 The Fan this week, guests Harold Reynolds of MLB Network and Pedro Gomez of ESPN predicted the Rockies would win the West. I asked if they knew Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee were still on the team? I kid because I care. But the pen remains an issue. The Rockies lost their best reliever, Adam Ottavino, to the Yankees. The onus is on righties Seunghwan Oh and Scott Oberg to anchor the eighth inning in front of Wade Davis. Chris Rusin is needed, but begins the year on the DL. The Rockies are short in the pen, and I can't see them winning their first division title without a midseason trade.
5) Catching grief
The Rockies made a significant move to bolster their lineup, adding Daniel Murphy to play first base. They required a catcher as well. Chris Iannetta is an ideal backup — good glove, solid power and gets on base. Tony Wolters is a tremendous pitch framer, but his lack of hitting and throwing errors are eye-opening. He batted .170 last year with no pop. He must improve to give Iannetta rest. And without an uptick at the plate, it's like putting two pitchers in the lineup on days he catches.
6) Outfield alignment
David Dahl embraces the idea of becoming a star. He looks the part. Acts the part. But can his body parts hold up? When healthy, he is sensational. Dahl told me in January we have yet to see his best. A 30-home run season is not out of the question. Charlie Blackmon should improve offensively by moving to right field. Center fielder Ian Desmond is an issue until he's not. He hits groundballs at the most alarming rate of any everyday player in baseball. He arrived in camp with a sunny disposition in likely his make-or-break season in Colorado. If he struggles, Raimel Tapia could get an extended look. The Rockies bench is thin, especially if Mark Reynolds starts slowly.
7) Hit or miss
An overlooked offseason addition was new hitting coach Dave Magadan. The Rockies were streaky and powerful at best and awful and maddening at worst last season. They require a pass-the-baton approach with emphasis on quality at-bats. This is a team that can win a division title. It starts with the rotation, but when facing fourth and fifth starters the lineup needs to hold regular lumber parties.