Rockies Open Spring Training, Looking to Take Another Step Forward

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The Rockies are coming off back-to-back post-season appearances for the first time in franchise history.

Nice. But far from satisfying.

They still haven’t won a division title, much less a world championship, and in those past two post-season appearances they have won only one game.

Translation: This isn’t a team that is taking anything for granted. The Rockies know they still have plenty to prove, and they know their own misstep on the final weekend of the regular season last September only added to their post-season disappointment.

So as the pitchers and catchers went through the first official workout of the spring at Salt River Fields on Tuesday – and plenty of position players worked out on their own on the back fields – it is safe to say the Rockies have maintained a focus on the challenge ahead.

They don’t just have October on their mind. They have their sights set on being the last team standing. This is no longer a franchise that wants to compete. It wants to be able to break into celebration as the final out is recorded in the final game of the season.

It wants to avoid creating its own headache heading into October, which it did last year. Remember, the Rockies had a one-game lead on the Dodgers in the NL West with two games to go. They wound up the NL wild-card, losing Game 161, which resulted in the Rockies being forced to fly after Game 162 to Los Angeles and play a Game 163 with the Dodgers to determine the NL West champion.

After losing, 5-2, to the Dodgers that Monday, they flew to Chicago, and pulled out a 2-1, 13-inning victory in the wild-card game.

Crazy thoughts?

Time will tell.

Now, the Rockies certainly aren’t the darlings of the prognosticators. Most projections have them with between 81 and 82 ½ wins.

They didn’t shake the earth in the off-season.

Their two most notable additions were signing a two-year, $24 million deal with free agent Daniel Murphy, who will be moved on a permanent basis from second to first base in Colorado, and bringing back Mark Reynolds, after a two-year absence, on a minor-league deal with the idea he will provide a veteran bat off the bench.

But they didn’t really feel the need.

Yes, they lost second baseman DJ LeMahieu and right-handed setup man Adam Ottavino as free agents to the Yankees.

But they do feel a comfort in the ability of their scouting and farm departments to provide help, underscored by the fact the Rockies had 12 home-grown players on their post-season roster last October, the most of any team in the playoffs.

And the 12 did play critical roles, particularly in a rotation that led the NL in innings pitches and included among the seven pitchers to start a game were former first-round draft picks Kyle Freeland, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson, as well as Chad Bettis, a second-round draft, and Antonio Senzatela, signed out of Latin America. German Marquez, who ranked second to Freeland in starts and innings, spent time in the Rockies system after being acquired from Tampa Bay with Jake McGee in the Corey Dickerson trade.

The rotation compiled a 4.15 ERA, which ranked second in franchise history to the 4.10 of 2009. The starters were a combined 59-43, a .578 winning percentage that ranked second in the NL to only the Dodgers (.600, 57-38).

In addition to the starting pitching, the Rockies can be expected to open the season with home-grown lineup that includes catcher Chris Iannetta, third baseman Nolan Arenado, shortstop Trevor Story, outfielders Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl, and the second baseman, whether it’s Garrett Hampson, Ryan McMahon or Brendan Rodgers.

Ian Desmond, signed as a free agent prior to the 2017 season, and Murphy are the only projected starting position players who didn’t come out of the Rockies system.

And behind closer Wade Davis in the bullpen, Scott Oberg, a Rockies draft choice, is set to work in the later stages of the game, and products of the system who have shots at earning an Opening Day berth include Harrison Musgrave, Yency Almonte and Carlos Estevez.

What is often overlooked is the Rockies made it to the post-season, and won 91 regular-season games, despite failing to have a .300 hitter for the first time in franchise history, and the team hit .256, the lowest season average in franchise history.

Five Biggest Questions of the Spring

--Who’s On Second: With the departure of DJ LeMahieu, the Rockies have an open competition with home-grown products Hampson, Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers, most likely, will open the season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he appeared briefly last year. Hampson and McMahon give the Rockies a right-handed and left-handed hitter, both of whom have versatility. Hampson was signed as a shortstop out of Long Beach State and has played center field. McMahon is a third baseman, who played primarily first base after his call-up last year.

--Who Takes the Fifth: Four members of the rotation seem set – Freeland, Marquez, Anderson and Gray. The fifth spot, however, will be a three-man battle with Senzatela, Bettis and Jeff Hoffman. Bettis will be nearly two years removed from testicular cancer surgery, which creates the expectation he will be stronger and closer to full speed. Senzatela has shown versatility between the bullpen and rotation the last two years. Hoffman came from Toronto in the Troy Tulowitzki trade, and has been very inconsistent in his big-league starts.

--Relief in sight? Wade Davis is a lock in the bullpen. Don’t be fooled by that season-ending 4.13 ERA or six blown saves. Bottom line is he had a few B-A-D games, but other than that he was his dominating self, particularly down the stretch when he went 7-for-7 in saves, and allowed one run in 11 innings, striking out 16, walking one and giving up five hits, in 11 appearances. His season was skewed by seven games in which he was 0-for-4 in saves and allowed 22 earned runs in five innings. In his other 60 1/3 innings he gave up eight earned runs. And while Ottavino is gone, the Rockies do return in-season addition Seunghwan Oh, and home-grown Scott Oberg, who blossomed in the later innings last year. They also have reason to expect veteran relievers Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw and Mike Dunn to have those bounce-back seasons so common for set-up relievers.

--Center of attention: The plan is to move Desmond from first base to center field, and most likely put Charlie Blackmon in left field. Desmond earned strong reviews for his center field play in Texas the year before he joined the Rockies, and the one thing about center field is outfielders get a more honest read on fly balls. In left field, particularly off the bat of a left-handed hitter, the outfielder must adjust to the slicing action, which was a challenge for Raimel Tapia in his brief appearances last year. David Dahl, projected in right field, can play all three outfield positions, and has the potential of an impact bat who can hit anywhere in the lineup.

Catching On: The Rockies return Iannetta and Tony Wolters, the primary tandem from a year ago, but they need some offensive production from the receivers. They ranked 14th in the NL in batting average last year, ahead of only the Diamondbacks. The question is whether Tom Murphy can rebound from the disappointment of last year and reaffirm his prospect status. If so, he could provide a major lift in an area of concern.