For most of the history of the franchise, anybody who was writing this yearly article had one easy bullet point for their summation. Of course the low hanging fruit I am referring to is better known as Coors Field. Be it caused by a humidor, weather patterns, changes to the park, or a voodoo priest, the park has somewhat stabilized as a very good park for hitters, but not quite the launching pad it was a decade ago. It inflates run-scoring rates by a mere 7 to 10 percent rather than the 20 to 30 percent it used to be.
Nobody is asking anymore if it is possible to build a winner in such an extreme environment. The Rockies have won 90 games in two of the last three years. In those two seasons, they have finished midpack in runs allowed. So I don’t see this as a particularly compelling story anymore, despite the fact that I just dedicated enough words to the subject for it to have actually counted as one of my “five questions” had I felt the urge to include it.
Question one: Can this team make the playoffs WITHOUT a crazy second-half run?
We all remember the Rox’s magical 2007 season. It featured a .714 September that got them into the playoffs with a one-game playoff against the Padres to get the wild card. They then swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks to get to the World Series before they were shot down by the Red Sox in similarly decisive fashion.
Last year’s team had a similarly shaped season with the Rockies making a dramatic run, culminating in a .667 September. Their best run was actually in June, when they won 17 of 18 starting June 4 and ending on June 22.
Is there something inherent about the way that these two rosters were constructed that enabled them to run off huge streaks? Or is this something that isn’t all that rare with 90- and 92-win teams and the late-season timing of the September runs make them more memorable than streaks that other very good teams made in May or July?
Question Two: Should Troy Tulowitzki be a trendy darkhorse MVP candidate?
It’s a sucker bet to lay down your chips on anybody not named Albert Pujols winning the MVP. And you can’t walk down the street anymore without running into a sabermetrician waiting to tell you how hideously overlooked Chase Utley is. And there are great reasons for both of these things. Pujols is the best player in the game. And Utley has been the best player on the last two NL champs and he is better than teammates Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, both of whom have MVP trophies. Utley and Pujols are practically perfect players, the best hitters in the league, the best defenders at their positions in baseball, and excellent baserunners.
Nevertheless, it is time for Troy Tulowitzki to become a household name. He is the best player on the team by a fair amount. And he is entering what should be his peak. Given his abilities at shortstop, a guy who goes .297/.377/.552 is insanely valuable, even taking park effects into account. If he stays healthy and experiences much of any kind of growth in his age 25-29 seasons, he seems like a reasonable bet to be one of the best players in the National League.
Question Three: Do they have a realistic chance to be the best defensive team in the NL?
With all apologies to the gloves of Tulowitzki, Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Chris Iannetta, and the still competent Todd Helton, this largely depends on a secondary question that I find to be an interesting thing to watch, which is how will the Rockies apportion playing time in the outfield among Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Brad Hawpe, and Seth Smith.
Now that they have thrown Garrett Atkins overboard, the only likely regular that is an obvious achilles’ heel in the field is Hawpe. It is understandable as he is what he has always been, a converted first baseman playing on an outfield corner. The less they use him in the outfield, the better they are at turning batted balls into outs. Gonzalez, Fowler, and Smith have the ability to be one of the best units in baseball at chasing down airborne baseballs. But it is easy to understand why they would continue to use him despite the defensive effects. A career .283/.377/.498 hitter is still a career .283/.377/.498 hitter. Eventually he will make somebody a wonderful DH.
Question Four: Is Jorge de la Rosa for real?
Before he became Rockies property in one of the more remarkably successful waiver trades in recent memory, de la Rosa wandered around professional baseball for 10 years, flashing plus stuff, but ultimately demonstrating no extended periods of success with a 5.2 walks per 9 and 6.4 K per 9 and allowing 190 runs in 274 career major league innings.
With the Rockies, he has been a revelation with 27 quality starts in 55 tries with greatly improved 4.1 and 9.2 walk- and strikeout-per 9 rates. If he can maintain this kind of improvement, the Rockies have a mid-rotation fixture.
Question Five: Can Chris Iannetta hold onto the starting gig all year?
Iannetta has a lot going for him. He is a better than average glove. He hits for power and draws a fair number of walks. He has a career 103 OPS+, which is excellent for a catcher. However, entering his age 27 season, he has yet to keep the starting spot all year. Last season he lost time to Yorvit Torrealba down the stretch as his batting average slumped and ended at .228. Despite the ugly BA, his power and patience were enough to make him a more-than-serviceable offensive catcher with a .344 OBP and .460 SLG.
If he can hold his K rate in check (he fanned 75 times in 289 at bats) and recover some of his lost BABIP (.245 in ’09, .283 career), he stands a good chance of posting a career high in games played, at-bats, and most other counting stats, outrunning Miguel Olivo’s power, K’s, and NO walks.
Bonus Question: If Huston Street’s balky shoulder remains a problem, what happens?
From a fantasy baseball angle, the answer is simply that Franklin Morales slides in and picks up some saves. But the bullpen in Denver isn’t especially deep and moving one of the few Rockies relievers up in the pecking order exposes more high leverage seventh- and eighth-inning appearances to the field of characters like Taylor Buchholz and Manny Corpas. That isn’t likely the end of the world, but it isn’t something I would be feeling good about.
As I am writing this, Street is scheduled to throw, but has no listed time table for starting the season. MRI’s have come back clean so this may be an irrelevant question.