DENVER -- The first few days are always the hardest. As snow covers the ground in mid February -- with Monday no exception -- the pangs to return to spring training begin. For 15 years, I traveled to Arizona to cover the Colorado Rockies in the Cactus League. I particularly loved the early practices. Optimism flooded conversations. Players were healthy, and stories were limited only by my imagination as everyone was accessible and eager to talk, weeks removed from every at-bat and pitch defining that day's outlook.
So as I watch flakes cover the ground and swirl around the backyard, my attention turns to the Rockies. Unlike in years past, they no longer employ hope as a strategy. They have a plan to realize their goal, and anything short than the first-ever back-to-back playoff berths will rank as a disappointment. The Rockies won 87 games last season, including a remarkable 41 on the road. Reaching the postseason was not even the biggest surprise. How they advanced was. This team leaned hard on his young starters and bullpen.
While the group coughed fumes down the stretch -- especially closer Greg Holland -- they reached the finish line. And learned a lesson in the process. There's nothing like a one-game wild card playoff, the sense of urgency leaving everything magnified and heartbreaking. They realized how much better it would be if they hosted that game or won their first National League outright.
Over the next six weeks, the Rockies will go through the calisthenics of spring, attempting to sharpen skills, while staying healthy and figuring out the final few roster openings.
There were years I covered the Rockies when their worst day was the last day of spring. From that point, scores counted, and the club began trudging toward irrelevancy. The Rockies are built to win now. But can they pull it off?
Let's muse about three things on a bone-chilling Monday in Colorado:
1) Will the Rockies hit enough?
I never thought I would write that sentence about a Rockies team. Even in bad seasons, they found ways to hit well. The Rockies, however, were top heavy. They looked and became vulnerable on nights when D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Mark Reynolds did not produce clutch at-bats. Ian Desmond desperately requires a bounceback season. He rarely looked like himself a year ago after breaking his wrist in spring training. Desmond made the surprising admission last weekend that he's prepared to play primarily left field. Whether he stays there or splits time at first base, the objective is clear. He has to hit for power. He had 19 extra base hits last season. Anything less than the 55 extra base hits he produced in 2016 would be a disappointment. Outfielder David Dahl remains an intriguing X-factor. If healthy -- and this can no longer be counted on -- he can produce 20 home runs and provide athleticism defensively on the base paths to lengthen out the lineup.
2) Who will play first base?
Ryan McMahon has proven he can wear out minor league pitching. Is he ready to play five days a week and produce? Reynolds fizzled in the second half, but provided pop. He remains a free agent, and would prefer to return to Colorado, a situation worth monitoring. There are multiple slugging first basemen available, including Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda.
What is realistic for McMahon? Can he produce 40 extra-base hits, among them 17 home runs? The key figures to be a strong start. The Rockies are no longer rebuilding, creating an expiration date on patience.
3) Will the young starters improve?
The only thing more difficult than reaching the big leagues is staying effective once there. The Rockies young starters provided a remarkable boost last season. Repeating it will not be easy for German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman. The league has a book on them, so nuance and the ability to pitch backwards in hitter's counts will loom large. Marquez and Freeland's ascension is critical. Senzatela hints of being better cast as a late-inning reliever, and this might be the last chance for Hoffman to prove he's part of the core moving forward. Two of the four young arms need big seasons, and it's time for Jon Gray to morph into a staff anchor, reaching 200 innings, while consistently working into the sixth.