The Colorado Rockies have gone seven years without a winning season, but after some careful drafts and signings, win #82 might finally be in reach.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training in little less than a month, and with rosters around the league nearly set, so too begins the season of predicting this year’s biggest surprises. Since 2010, Colorado has had the third-worst winning percentage in all of baseball and has not won more than 75 games in a season. However, General Manager Jeff Bridich’s drudgery appears ready to pay off, as Colorado has the potential to turn 2017 into their first winning season in seven years.
Colorado scored 845 runs in 2016, second to only the Boston Red Sox. Lineup mainstays like Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez continued to pad their baseball card résumés, while breakout years from centerfielder Charlie Blackmon, second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and shortstop Trevor Story helped the team tremendously.
Unfortunately for Colorado, breakout performances are typically followed by regression, and falloff seems inevitable for Blackmon, whose 2016 wRC+ (an indicator of a player’s offensive production where 100 is league average) was 24 points higher than anything he had put up previously.
Recent addition Ian Desmond, however, provides the lineup with security should David Dahl or any other hitter fail to build on their 2016 success. Last year was a bounceback season for Desmond, who saw his strikeout rate diminish by 5.6% and his OBP rise by 45 points from 2015.
While playing 81 out of 162 games at an elevation of 5,200 ft. benefits the Rockies in the batter’s box, it is perilous for their pitchers. Last year, Colorado’s bullpen threw the 13th fewest innings, yet surrendered the third-most runs, leaving them with the league’s highest bullpen ERA at 5.13. Unable to attract premier free agent pitchers or trade for those with no-trade clauses, Jeff Bridich has nonetheless assembled a bullpen for 2017 that could prove substantially better than 2016’s squad.
The bullpen features four groundball pitchers in Adam Ottavino, Chad Qualls, Chris Rusin, and Jordan Lyles. Meanwhile, Jake McGee, Jason Motte, and Mike Dunn have all struck out batters at a higher-than-average clip in their careers, and when playing at Coors Field, any outcome that is not a flyball is a success.
Despite being one of Colorado’s best relievers last year, it is unknown if Adam Ottavino’s 2016 was a fluke or not. Similar to Charlie Blackmon, last year was a career year for Ottavino, and any hopes the Rockies have of being competitive hinge on Ottavino competing at an All-Star level.
Conversely, 2016 was one of the worst career years for Jake McGee, Chad Qualls, and Jordan Lyles, leaving Colorado begging for them to be flukes. However, Colorado could mitigate any poor performances by landing another reliever.
David Robertson in particular would fit nicely with Colorado given his high strikeout rate. Unable to block a trade to them, the Rockies might be able to obtain Robertson without paying a high price in prospects given his poor play in 2016 (by his standards), and the $25 million remaining on his contract through 2018. Should Ottavino continue to dominate, McGee, Qualls, or Lyles return to their career norms, or if the Rockies land a reliever via trade, the 2017 bullpen will be well situated to surpass 2016’s effort.
Colorado’s rotation was competent in 2016, capturing the 13th-best fWAR, tied with the Astros. Led by the hard-throwing Jon Gray and Chad Bettis, 2017 will most likely see more of the same from the starters. Lacking any talented depth, however, the Rockies will need Jeff Hoffman to thrive in the fifth rotation spot lest they want one out of every five games to be a revolving showcase of awful.
Between Triple-A and the Majors, Hoffman threw 140 innings in 2016, but at the Major League level, he struggled mightily. His K/9 rate dropped by over three percent, walks increased, and he surrendered more than two home runs per nine innings.
If anything is encouraging about Hoffman’s rookie year it is that it is probably too terrible to sustain. Last season, the average home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB) was 12.8%, while Hoffman’s was 23.3%. While skill can influence HR/FB, and 31.1 innings is a small sample size, only two pitchers who threw a minimum of 60 innings last year had an HR/FB above 20%. Meaning Hoffman is either in rare company, or he ran into some very bad luck in 2016. If this trend can be reversed, and if he can have a return to the type of control he demonstrated in the minor leagues, 2017 might be a big year for Hoffman to establish himself in the big leagues.
To review: the offense is great, the bullpen could be better, and the rotation is average. Under normal circumstances, these would make the Rockies fringe playoff contenders. However, the Dodgers and Giants stand to wreak havoc within the NL West. Los Angeles is coming off their fourth straight 90+ win season, and while San Francisco saw its even-year dynasty perish, they still pose a more serious threat than would a typical second place team.
A lot has to go right for the Rockies to make the playoffs in 2017. The offense has to continue to be really, really good, and the pitching has to be average — which is asking a lot in Coors Field — and, most likely, either the Giants or the Dodgers will have to crater. However, whether a team makes the playoffs or not isn’t always the best barometer of success. Will the Rockies make the playoffs in 2017? Probably not, but do they have a legitimate shot at breaking the .500 mark for the first time in seven years? Oh yeah.
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