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Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws to the plate against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning of a game on Monday, Aug. 6. Photo by Jack Dempsey / AP Photo

2019 Preview: Will the Rockies Finally Win the NL West?

For the first time in franchise history, the Rockies are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances. Will this be the year they emerge atop their division?

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Although the 2018 season ended with the Rockies being swept in the National League Division Series by the Milwaukee Brewers, it was the most exciting and entertaining year since the club’s 2007 World Series run. There’s no reason 2019 shouldn’t bring some of the same thrills, considering the team retained most of its talented core—including superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado, after he signed an eight-year contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid position players in baseball this season.

Colorado should challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West title once again, but with National League Wild Card foes strengthened and some Rockies youngsters still untested, there’s no clear prognosis for Colorado’s season. Here are some of the key questions that will define the Rockies’ fight for a third-straight playoff appearance in 2019.

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Who’s Playing Second?

Even with the loss of the former second baseman DJ LeMahieu to the New York Yankees, the future for the Rockies infield is extraordinarily bright. Arenado—who has won six-straight gold gloves at third base and is one of baseball’s best hitters —is on board for three years before he can opt out of his contract. Offseason acquisition Daniel Murphy, who will likely play first base, is a three-time All-Star who should rebound from an injury-hampered 2018 campaign. And last year, Trevor Story became the first shortstop in MLB history to total 40 doubles, 30 home runs, and 25 stolen bases in a single season.

The only major question is who will play second base consistently. A vast reservoir of potential lies in the 24-and-under crowd. Last season gave us a glimpse, as Ryan McMahon demonstrated a flair for the dramatic and provided solid defense. He’s also been crushing the ball during spring training, with a batting average consistently over .400. He’s earned a start at second base on Opening Day, but a spring training hot streak doesn’t always carry over into the season.

Should McMahon falter, Garrett Hampson is next in line. Last season Hampson hit .275 in 40 at-bats after his call-up from the minors, and has shown some power this year in the spring. Don’t forget about Brendan Rodgers, the star-studded prospect who will start the year in the minors but could easily make it to the Big Leagues by midseason. Knowing it’s unlikely McMahon will keep up his current pace at the plate, look for him to share some time with Hampson.

Is the Young Pitching For Real?

The 2018 season was an introduction on a national stage to the Rockies’ impressive group of young starting pitchers. Kyle Freeland and German Marquez, who were both under 25, anchored a rotation that ended up being one of the most impressive in franchise history.

Both Freeland (17-7, 2.85 ERA) and Marquez (14-11, 3.77 ERA) had breakout performances last year. Freeland, who notched the second lowest earned-run-average in franchise history and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, recorded a dazzling scoreless start in the National League Wild Card victory over the Cubs. Marquez, who was un-hittable in the second half of 2018, set a franchise-record with eight straight strikeouts to start a game on September 26. There’s hope that they will demonstrate similarly stellar performances in 2019.

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One of the key remaining unknowns is how Jon Gray will perform after an up-and-down season when, as Nick Groke and Nate Kreckman pointed out on the The Athletic Denver Podcast, his mental toughness was doubtful. He’s aware of his need to rebound, and he has looked good in spring training. But when he starts getting rattled, can he control himself and stop the damage?

What to Do With Ian Desmond?

Last year, in his second season with the Rockies, first baseman Ian Desmond played 160 of 162 games. He posted a feeble .236 batting average and .307 on-base percentage. Still, he ended up with 22 home runs and 88 RBIs. And based on advanced metrics (-0.6 wins above replacement, for the baseball nerds among you), he was a below average player last year. It’s hard to argue that Desmond should be starting a majority of games for a major league team—let alone one that should be in playoff contention, which is what makes Desmond’s proposed move to center field (as a starter!) so complicated.

Rather than use him as a backup first baseman behind Daniel Murphy, manager Bud Black wants to use him in center to save Charlie Blackmon’s legs. That fringe benefit is nice, but Desmond should be limited to a platoon role, with young up-and-comers like Raimel Tapia receiving a hearty serving of playing time. Sadly, the Rockies need to justify his $15 million earnings this year, so they’ll likely overuse him and hope he can turn things around.

What About the Expensive Bullpen?

The Rockies’ bullpen took a hit this offseason when late-inning wizard Adam Ottavino signed with the Yankees. However, the relief corps he left behind in Denver proved its mettle throughout the final stretch of the season.

True, closer Wade Davis had some infuriating moments, including a four-game August stretch where he gave up eight runs in just over two total innings. Other than that, he was stellar, leading the National League with 43 saves. Last year’s midseason acquisition from the Blue Jays, Seunghwan Oh, provided some great late-inning support along with Scott Oberg, who showed significant improvement over 2017.

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With Oh, Oberg and Davis as more-than-capable anchors, it’s difficult to tell how the rest of the bullpen will fare. Bryan Shaw came over from Cleveland with high expectations, but ended up being a train wreck for most of last season. Mike Dunn pitched poorly before season-ending shoulder surgery (he’s back in 2019), and Jake McGee wasn’t reliable, either. It’s worth noting that Shaw and McGee are making a combined $17 million this year, and yet they’ve been duds throughout their Rockies tenure.

Perhaps the best hope for the earlier relief innings comes from Antonio Senzatela (once he heals from an infected blister on his foot) and DJ Johnson, who pitched well with a high strikeout rate in a limited sample at the end of 2018. The latter has given the Rockies some particularly strong performances in spring training.

How Deep Can This Team Go in the Playoffs?

Colorado’s pitching staff is young, healthy (at least for now) and talented. The potential upside of the infield—Arenado, Story, McMahon and Murphy—on both sides of the ball is huge. And Bud Black might be the best manager they’ve ever had.

In the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks won’t be the foe they used to be after losing two of their best hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. The Dodgers nabbed Pollock, but lost third-baseman Manny Machado and outfielder Yasiel Puig. Injuries to Rockie-killer starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler don’t bode well for them, either. The Dodgers are still the odds-on favorites in the West, but this might be as good of a chance as the Rockies will get to win their first NL West crown.

Colorado’s potential for a deep playoff run is a different story. The Braves and Brewers should be great again—each projected by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA rankings to finish with 85-plus wins. Much depends on the Phillies and the Cardinals, both of which made major upgrades during the offseason, as well as a Cubs team that remains young and talented. Will the Rockies take time to mesh or be good right away? The answer to that question could potentially determine the Rockies’ fate in the postseason.

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