Rockies Face Talented Challenge in Roster Decision
The Rockies have reached a point in their existence where the big decisions in the spring will come down to which players get sent to the minor leagues rather than how they can piece together the final parts of a big-league roster.
They have developed a solid big-league foundation and now have young players coming out of the farm system to fill voids, like a year ago when Pat Valaika made his big-league debut as a super sub, playing everything in the infield and even getting time in the outfield, instead of looking for journeymen.
The biggest challenge this spring will be trimming down the starting rotation. Seven of the eight pitchers they used in claiming a wild-card berth return, and Chad Bettis is the grizzled veteran in a group that does not include a single pitcher who is 30.
A look at what would seem to be the prime candidates for the 25-man roster with the anticipated number of players at each position in parenthesis:
CATCHER (2 or 3)
Given the versatility of Tony Wolters, who can also play the middle infield, the Rockies have the luxury of three catchers. The biggest decision will be splitting playing time.
Chris Iannetta is the veteran. He was signed to provide a safety net for Murphy, a left-handed hitter, and at this stage of his career he embraces the idea of being the tutor. He figures to catch the bulk of the work load early, but Murphy will have the chance to emerge.
Tom Murphy was the anticipated No. 1 catcher a year ago, but on a throw to second base during spring training his right forearm collided with Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo’s bat and he was sidelined with a broken forearm. The right-handed hitter went 1-for-20 in eight games once he was activated and was sent to Triple-A June 30. He remains high on the Rockies list.
Tony Wolters provides versatility. Converted from a middle infielder to a catcher by the Indians in 2013 he has been a key part of the Rockies roster the last two years. He can still step in as needed at second base, and still has enough speed to pinch-run at times.
FIRST BASE (1)
It’s Ryan McMahon’s job to lose.
Ryan McMahon After a season of constant change in 2016 McMahon settled in a year ago and hit a combined .355 Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque with 20 home runs and 86 RBI in 470 at-bats. A converted third baseman he has the hands and agility to be plus first baseman.
Ian Desmond brings versatility of also being a solid center fielder/left fielder and a proven shortstop. He was signed last year to play first base with the idea that once McMahon was ready to step in he could become a Ben Zobrist-type because of versatility.
SECOND BASE (1)
DJ LeMahieu has established himself since being moved to second base as one of the most consistent middle infielders in the game. He has excelled at hitting second because of his bat control, but could help himself if he would pull a ball a bit more often to cut down on extreme shifts. Defensively he is Gold Glove caliber and has been intelligent enough to continue to make long throws to enhance his value.
Trevor Story is an emerging multi-tool impact player at short. He is an upper echelon defensive shortstop, has shown a power bat (51 home runs in first two seasons and only shortstop in franchise history with 20 or more home runs each of his first two seasons). Pitchers made adjustments to him at the start of last season, and he began to adjust as season went on. Next move is up to him.
THIRD BASE (1)
Nolan Arenado is just shy of five years of MLB service, but already has been voted five Gold Glove and three Silver Slugger awards by NL managers and coaches, and is a three-time All-Star selection. He’s a career .300 hitter with three consecutive seasons of 130 or more RBI, and 37 or more home runs. Enough said.
LEFT FIELD (1)
Ian Desmond is the veteran but David Dahl and Raimel Tapia both showed potential, particularly to fill the leadoff spot if Charlie Blackmon is moved to the middle of the lineup.
Ian Desmond will get the bulk of his time in left field if McMahon can handle the first base chores. Originally a shortstop, he converted to the outfield with the Rangers two years ago, and was solid in both left field and center. The veteran big-leaguer also could see time at shortstop if a situation arises.
Raimel Tapia is more the speed guy, but worked on getting stronger in the spring and in his exhibition debut drove a ball out the opposite way to left-center. He, like Dahl, can play all three outfield positions. Which adds to roster versatility.
David Dahl suffered through a wasted 2017 after showing signs of being big-league ready in the final two months of 2016. He has the skill set to hit leadoff and also provide power from the top spot, which the Rockies have grown accustomed to with the presence of Charlie Blackmon. Like Tapia he can play all three outfield positions and has arm strength suitable to right field.
CENTER FIELD (1)
Charlie Blackmon is the man. The only question is whether he hits lead off or third. He has more power and run-producing ability than most leadoff hitters. Having set an MLB record for RBI by a leadoff hitter last year there is some thought about moving him down so he hits with more men on base.
RIGHT FIELD (1)
Gerardo Parra will miss at least the first two weeks of exhibition games in his recovery from surgery to remove a broken hamate bone in his right wrist, but is confident he will have ample time to get ready for Opening Day. A left fielder last year he gets the opportunity to move to right field and replace his mentor, Carlos Gonzalez.
How many utility players the Rockies keep will depend on how many outfielders they keep, and whether Desmond is considered the every day player at first or left field. Having both Desmond and Wolters on the roster provides depth in terms of roster maneuvers.
Pat Valaika is being counted on as the one definite. He can play all four infield positions, stepped in for a few games in left field last year and for a rookie was shockingly comfortable in a pinch-hit role, showing plus power.
Daniel Castro appeared in 80 big-league games with the Braves between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, appearing at second, third and short. He was with the Rockies Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate the entire 2017 season, earning the minor league Rawlings Gold Glove award at shortstop.
Shawn O’Malley played parts of three seasons in the big leagues with the Angels (2014) and Mariners(2015-16) but spent the 2017 season primarily on the DL with right shoulder tendinits before appearing in 33 minor-league games in the Mariners organization. He has played all three outfield positions, second, third and short at the big-league level.
STARTING PITCHING (5)
Seven of the eight pitchers who started games for the Rockies last year return, including all four of the Class of 2017 rookies. Health permitting – and that is always a question as the Rockies found out a year ago – the rotation will have the depth to be a strength.
Jon Gray started Opening Day last year and the wild-card playoff game with the D-Backs, emerging as the Rockies No. 1 starter. He did spend 2 1/2 months on the disabled list with a fracture in his left foot, but was 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 20 starts and Rockies were 13-7. He was 5-1 with a 3.13 ERA in eight starts at Coors Field, and allowed three or fewer runs in his final 13 starts of the regular season.
Chad Bettis was sidelined with a recurrence of testicular cancer last spring and while he made it back for nine starts at the end of the season he was never at full strength. He showed promising signs in his spring debut, needing only 25 pitches to work two innings, and topping out at 95 with his fastball, which is the velocity he is seeking. He turns 29 on April 26, which makes him the sage veteran of the rotation.
Tyler Anderson has an edge, but would be grouped among the five pitchers seeking one of the final three rotation spots. The lefty is 11-12 with a 4.09 ERA 36 appearances, 34 starts, over the last two seasons. He was part of the Opening Day rotation last year, but was on the disabled list for 97 days in two stints because of a left knee inflammation that resulted in arthroscopic surgery July 3.
German Marquez was considered a potential closer but changed opinions with the complete arsenal he displayed once he was put in the rotation last year. He was 11-7 with a 4.39 ERA in 29 starts, and set a Rockies record for a rookie with six consecutive quality starts from July 7-Aug. 8. He led MLB rookies with 147 strikeouts and 14 quality starts.
Kyle Freeland, a native of Denver, matched Marquez for the MLB lead in victories by a rookie with 11 last year, and his 4.10 ERA was the fourth lowest by a rookie in franchise history. He was 9-7 with a 3.77 ERA prior to the All-Star Break and then wound up working in relief in five of 15 second half appearances when he was 2-4 with a 4.81 ERA.
Antonio Senzatela moved between the rotation and the bullpen, the Rockies watching his work load after he was limited to seven starts and 34 2/3 innings at Double-A Hartford in 2016 because of a right shoulder strain and a trip home to Venezuela to be with his dying mother. He was the NL Rookie of the Month in April (3-1, 2.81). Working out of the bullpen in September he had a 3.04 ERA, striking out 23 in 23 2/3 innings of 16 appearances.
Jeff Hoffman opened the season at Triple-A Albuquerque, was called up to make two emergency starts in doubleheaders created by rainouts, and then joined the big-league roster in mid-May. He worked out of the bullpen in September, making six of his seven relief appearances in that month.
RELIEF PITCHING (8)
The Rockies are looking at an eight-man bullpen to help offset the physical demands of Coors Field. They would seem to be solid with seven. There is always the possibility they could keep one of the pitchers who doesn’t make the rotation
Wade Davis signed a three-year free-agent deal with the largest AAV ($18.3 million) ever for a reliever. An All-Star each of the last three seasons the right-hander’s 59 saves rank ninth in MLB over the last two seasons. Since moving into the bullpen full time in 2014 he is 23-6 with 79 saves in 87 opportunities and a 1.45 ERA. And he enjoys October. He is 4-0 with eight saves and a 1.40 ERA in 28 career post-season appearances.
Bryan Shaw signed a three-year free-agent contract in the off-season. The right-hander has been durable, having appeared in 70 or more games each of the last five seasons with the Indians. He induced 18 double plays, most among MLB relief pitchers. His 98 holds since 2014 are tied for second in the big leagues.
Jake McGee filed for free agency in the fall, but returned to the Rockies on a three-year deal. In his five full big-league seasons he ranks fifth among left-handed relievers with 409 strikeouts and 408 appearances. Came to Rockies along with Marquez from the Rays in a tracd for outfielder Corey Dickerson and infielder Kevin Prado in January of 2016.
Mike Dunn returns for a second season with the Rockies. He has appeared in at least 50 games as a reliever each of the last seven seasons. Bothered early last season by back spasms, which led to a stint on the disabled list in late April. His 502 career appearances are sixth among active left-handed pitchers.
Adam Ottavino struggled with his command in his first full-season back after Tommy John surgery, issuing a career-high 39 walks in 53 1/3 innings. Mechanical flaws were addressed in the off-season, and early indications in the spring were that he had regained his strike-throwing confidence.
Chris Rusin is the left-handed answer to any role the Rockies need filled. A waiver claim from the Cubs in September of 2014 he has made 84 of his 108 appearances since joining the Rockies out of the bullpen where he is 8-2 with a 2.50 ERA. He showed an ability to work multiple innings, handling two or more innings in 17 of 60 appearances last year.
Scott Oberg can dominate when he has his command. He appeared to turn the corner in terms of consistency in September when he had a 2.25 ERA in 13 appearances. He has the type of arm that could earn him a late-inning role as he masters his command.
Carlos Estevez was on the Rockies Opening Day roster last year, and in two stretches with the big-league club he did appear in 35 games with a 5.37 ERA. He has a big arm, though, and it was apparent at Triple-A Albuquerque where he ignored the altitude and went 1-4 with a 1.34 ERA and four saves in 33 appearances. He struck out 65 batters in 66 innings combined between Albuquerque and the Rockies. He has to show more consistent command in the strikezone to claim the eighth spot.
Zac Rosscup was acquired from the Cubs last June and split time between the Rockies and Triple-A Albuquerque. He has limited left-handed hitters to a .136 batting average, third lowest among active pitchers with a minimum 100 batters faced. He was coming back last year after undergoing left shoulder surgery on May 13, 2016.