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Well, the pennant is a bit of a reach. And with the Dodgers and Pads vying over who can swipe the company card faster when it comes to inking free agents, the division seems like a long shot, too. But we think that there’s some optimism burbling in Denver—or at the very least, that the Rockies can eke out more than 68 wins this season.
Here are our six boldest predictions for the 2023 campaign.
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Ezequiel Tovar will be the National League West’s best shortstop.
San Diego dropped $280 million on former Boston star Xander Bogaerts this past winter, but it’ll be 21-year-old Rockies rookie Ezequiel Tovar turning heads at shortstop in the National League West this season.
Tovar’s calling card has been on defense—which is hardly an outlier among Colorado star shortstops of the past—but the young Venezuelan also showed off excellent bat-to-ball skills during an injury-shortened, breakout 2022 minor-league campaign. Expect him to use his quality speed (41 stolen bases across the past two seasons in the minors) to pile up some doubles and triples in that generous outfield at Coors. Tovar swiped 17 bags (and hit 13 homers, for what it’s worth) in just 295 plate appearances in Double-A as a 20-year-old, so this dude definitely can play.
We’re going to ignore Tovar’s penchant to chase pitches outside the zone—and those 33 relatively crappy at-bats with the big-league club in September—and instead focus on the 15-homer, 20-stolen-base upside for a kid who’s barely hit the legal drinking age and might be manning Colorado’s middle infield for the next decade. —Robert Sanchez
Charlie Blackmon will be traded before August.
Expect Josie and Charlie to take a vacation far away, sadly. The four-time National League All-Star enters his 13th season with enough going for him that we expect big numbers—the sort of stats that you get you offed to a contender around mid-season.
For starters, the newly instated ban on the over-shift means that every team must position two infielders on either side of second base, and those defenders must begin with at least a foot touching the dirt. In other words, teams can no longer load the right side of the infield (and shallow outfield) when Blackmon, a lefty, stands in the box. Blackmon has seen a steady decrease in his batting average on balls in play (or BABIP in nerd parlance) since teams began shifting more on him—from .371 in his title-winning 2017 campaign to barely a smidge over .300 last season. He ranks 13th in all of baseball in estimated hits lost to the shift with 135, and was second last year with 38 alone. This year, expect Blackmon to smack a bunch through the right side and pad his numbers nicely.
Also in Blackmon’s favor: the continued use of the designated hitter in the National League. A new rule last year, the NL’s adoption of the DH allows the outfielder to nurse pesky half-injuries (like his back, which he aggravated this spring) in a batting-only role, meaning the Rockies can essentially rest Blackmon without sending him to the injury list. With Kris Bryant moving to right field and the newly signed veteran Jurickson Profar handling left, expect most of Blackmon’s appearances to come from the low-impact DH spot, where he can remain healthy.
Finally, don’t forget that Blackmon enters the 2023 campaign in the final year of the mega $108 million contract he signed in 2018. So if the Rockies are out of contention in summer and Blackmon’s putting up pretty numbers, he’ll be a worthy trade chip for the right prospects. —Maren Horjus
But you’ll barely notice with Zac Veen getting called up to the Show.
One of the more intriguing prospects to come up through the Rockies’ above-average farm system is Zac Veen, a speedy 21-year-old who should drop the average age of the Colorado outfield around a decade or so. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but consider us smitten by the youth movement with the current stable of injury-prone outfielders—aged 36 (Blackmon), 31 (Bryant), 29 (Yonathan Daza), and 30 (Profar)—bumbling around the grass.
Veen’s most alluring tool (baseball scouts tend to talk about five of them) is his foot speed. And for a Rockies squad that swiped just 45 bags as a team last year—good for 29th most out of 30 teams—speed on the base paths represents a chance to, well, hopefully score more runs. Blackmon hasn’t been a base stealer since 2015, when he set the table for the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Carlos González, and Justin Morneau. Perhaps not a fair comparison, but we like the idea of the mustachioed Veen leading off—he sports a career .375 on-base percentage in the Minors and short-season ball—in front of Ryan McMahon, Bryant, and C.J. Cron.
Of course, speed isn’t the corner outfielder’s only plus. Veen grades high for his hitting power and fielding prowess, too—both of which pair nicely with the Rockies’ home turf. (He is one of the most highly touted Colorado prospects since Arenado.) Though history would paint manager Bud Black as preferring to play veterans, the Rockies’ front office would be wise to bring Veen up to the Majors quickly so he can work out the kinks and the growing pains typical of any rookie—and help you forget what once was. —Ryan Wright
Elehuris Montero will silence his critics.
Elehuris Montero can’t win. It’s not possible. Even if the 24-year-old third baseman—a top prospect before reaching the Majors last year—rakes, he’ll still be The Guy We Got for Nolan Arenado in what many consider to be the worst swap since the Louisiana Purchase.
Worse yet, people seem to want Montero fail. Recently, a St. Louis Cardinals fansite declared, “We’re glad Elehuris Montero is gone from the Cardinals.” The writer of the piece argued that not only is Arenado better (OK, fine), but that Montero also “didn’t look like much” (harsh) with the Rockies last season. The author condemned Montero for striking out 32.4 percent of the time after being called up from Triple-A.
But since arriving in the Rockies’ system, all Montero has done is hit—to the tune of 43 home runs and 140 runs batted in over a season and change of Minor League ball. The spree continued this spring, when Montero led the team with five homers and 12 RBIs. And what about all those Ks last year? Well, during his first season with the Yankees, in 2016, reigning Most Valuable Player and certified homerun masher Aaron Judge struck out 44.2 percent of the time.
We’re not saying Montero is the next Judge or that he will ever fill Arenado’s cleats. But as the Rockies’ starting third baseman in 2023, he’ll begin to chart his own path—one that circles the bases on a regular basis. —Spencer Campbell
Daniel Bard will—wait, no—Kyle Freeland will receive Cy Young votes.
Would you believe that last year’s Rockies—owners of a 68–94 record and sole possession of last place in the NL West—had a player on the active roster receive Most Valuable Player votes? While finishing 16th in most any contest is nothing to advertise on a banner, Daniel Bard’s impressive 2022 campaign was nothing short of miraculous. Consider that the high-octane reliever—a dazzling first-round pick in the 2006 draft who famously set a club record for the Boston Red Sox in 2011 when he strung together 25 consecutive scoreless appearances—lost command of virtually all of his pitches, seemingly overnight, in 2013. By 2014, the once-flashy lefty was out of the Majors.
That makes Bard’s 2020 comeback something of legend among Rockies faithful. After a seven-year hiatus, he returned to Major League Baseball, where he cemented a spot in Colorado’s bullpen. By 2021, he was the closer. And last season? Well, he notched more than 60 innings of work and 34 saves—good for third among pitchers in the NL. His “wins above replacement-level” (WAR in the scouting room) creeped up to 3.8—second on the team to only Brendan Rodgers. All of that helped him notch a pair of MVP votes—and seems like a good recipe for Cy Young consideration this year.
The pitching-specific award tends to favor players on contending teams more than the MVP contest, however, so such a prognostication is predicated on the Rockies’ success to a degree. Of course, if that happens, it’s probably due in large part to Denver’s own Kyle Freeland notching a bounce-back year. The Thomas Jefferson High alum, who turns 30 this season, will try to recapture the magic of his fantastic 2018 season, where he spun a 17–7 record and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. After a strong showing in the World Baseball Classic, the lefty will look to reclaim his status as the staff ace in Denver. —M.H. and R.W.