Complete Colorado Rockies 2014 Season Preview

Seth Victor@sh_vicContributor IIIMarch 27, 2014

Complete Colorado Rockies 2014 Season Preview

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    The 2014 Rockies will count on Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.
    The 2014 Rockies will count on Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.Associated Press

    There’s no real way around the fact that the 2013 Colorado Rockies’ season was a disappointment. In Walt Weiss’ first season as manager, the team went just 74-88 and finished last in the NL West.

    It didn’t have to be that way, though. The Rockies were in first place as late as May 25 and actually spent much of April at the top of the division. However, their season essentially ended when the Dodgers’ June hot streak coincided with a one-month injury absence for their star shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki (via Baseball Prospectus).

    The downhill run continued throughout the season: The only month during which they had a winning record was April, which has to be considered unacceptable for a team trying to compete.

    With Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have two of baseball’s 40 most valuable players (according to FanGraphs’ WAR) over the past three years. Unfortunately, though, the two cannot stay on the field. Tulowitzki has played over 130 games just once in the last four years while Gonzalez has done it once in the last three.

    Their 2014 season, then, is dependent on those two staying healthy.

     

    All spring statistics accurate as of March 26, 2014.

Spring Training Recap

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    Outfielder Brandon Barnes has been great this spring.
    Outfielder Brandon Barnes has been great this spring.Associated Press

    For what it’s worth (and that’s not much), the Rockies have gone 14-13 in the spring. More noteworthy, of course, are the performances that opened eyes—of which there were a few.

    However, virtually all the standouts are position players. This is a common problem with the Rockies, who have been unable to produce any pitching: They somehow have only had four pitchers throw at least 200 innings combined over the previous three years.

    Those facts are not to take anything away from guys like Brandon Barnes, though. The outfielder was acquired in an offseason trade with Houston for Dexter Fowler, and he really impressed this spring. His .340/.365/.460 line is quite impressive, and it might even be good enough to convince the Rockies he should be the Opening Day starter in center field.

    Ryan Wheeler has also had a superb spring in his attempt to make his first Opening Day roster. This report from MLB.com’s Thomas Harding suggests that Wheeler is in the mix for a bench spot, and that sounds reasonable. As Harding mentions, much of Wheeler’s hope lies with the fact that the rest of the backup candidates are all right-handed—so Wheeler would be the only lefty they could bring off the bench.

    The unrelated Tim Wheeler’s monstrous 1.287 OPS is a huge development for both the Rockies and the outfielder himself. He was a first-round pick in 2009, but his development has stalled. To quote Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required): “Wheeler’s disappointing 2013 campaign depressed his stock and major-league projection, as the 25-year-old outfielder was removed from the 40-man roster and exposed to waivers.”

    However, given the fact that Wheeler has played much of his minor league career in center field, it’s easy to see the Rockies deciding—on the basis of his spring—that they should give him a shot and see if he can actually now hit.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    RHP Jhoulys Chacin is an important member of the Rockies' rotation.
    RHP Jhoulys Chacin is an important member of the Rockies' rotation.Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Given the injury history of this team, you’d expect the training staff to be busy. However, as neither of the superstars—Tulowitzki or Gonzalez—are hurt yet, there isn’t a huge amount of news at this point. Instead, according to MLB’s injury report, there are just two concerns we should be aware of.

    The primary name on the list is SP Jhoulys Chacin. Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post recently reported that Chacin wasn’t slated to return from a shoulder strain until early May, which would be a huge blow to the Rockies’ attempts to get off to a hot start. The righty put up 4.3 Wins Above Replacement (according to FanGraphs) in 2013, which was the most of any Colorado pitcher.

    Boone Logan is the other Rockie question mark for Opening Day, as the lefty is recovering from offseason elbow surgery. Logan—in addition to not being as important as Chacin—is not as injured. He made his spring training debut on March 20, and although he hoped to be ready for Opening Day, manager Walt Weiss said on March 26 that he was a “long shot”, according to MLB.com's Harding.

    Catcher Wilin Rosario has a leg bruise that is not worrying.

Lineup Preview

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    Colorado will depend heavily on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
    Colorado will depend heavily on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Lineup

    Drew Stubbs, CF

    Michael Cuddyer, RF

    Carlos Gonzalez, LF

    Troy Tulowitzki, SS

    Justin Morneau, 1B

    Wilin Rosario, C

    Nolan Arenado, 3B

    DJ LeMahieu, 2B

     

    Bench

    Jordan Pacheco, C

    Paul Janish, SS

    Brandon Barnes, CF

    Charlie Blackmon, OF

    Josh Rutledge, IF

     

    The middle of the Rockies' lineup is set in stone as long as everyone remains healthy. With Cuddyer, Gonzalez, Tulowitzki, the newly-acquired Morneau and Rosario, manager Walt Weiss can alternate right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters and have power potential from spots two through six.

    Arenado is a popular breakout candidate in 2014, and if he does take a step forward, the Rockies will have an even deeper lineup than it seems they do right now.

    The one and eight spots are the tricky parts of Colorado’s lineup. DJ LeMahieu is entrenched as the second baseman, but there are still questions about where he will hit. This Jerry Crasnick report suggests LeMahieu is a possibility, but he doesn’t have the speed to compete with Stubbs.

    That leaves center field, and it really appears to be up in the air at this point—although Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post believes the team prefers Stubbs. The Rockies presumably acquired Stubbs with the idea of him being the center fielder, but his career in Cincinnati was marked by an inability to hit (career .691 OPS). Barnes, similarly, has never proven he can really hit. The tiebreaker here is probably Stubbs’ speed and defense: His defense will get him in the lineup, and his speed will convince Weiss to put him at the top.

    With regards to the bench, I think it is relatively straightforward. Pacheco is a young backup catcher who also offers some ability to play the corners in a pinch—although Michael McKenry, his competition, was recently added to the 40-man roster. Janish is having an excellent spring, and he is a very good defensive shortstop who can adequately back up Tulowitzki.

    Blackmon is a corner outfielder who actually had a very good offensive year in 2013 (107 OPS+) and who can provide a left-handed bat off the bench. Rutledge is an infielder who has had roughly 300 plate appearances in each of the past two years and can play both second base and shortstop.

Rotation Preview

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    Jorge De La Rosa will start on Opening Day.
    Jorge De La Rosa will start on Opening Day.Associated Press
    1. Jorge De La Rosa
    2. Brett Anderson
    3. Tyler Chatwood
    4. Juan Nicasio
    5. Franklin Morales

     

    Troy Renck of The Denver Post reported recently that De La Rosa will be selected as the Opening Day starter since Chacin is hurt. Again, as Renck says, he is the obvious choice. Once we adjust his raw numbers for the Coors Field effect, he was actually quite good—as his 81 ERA- last year demonstrates.

    Behind him, the rotation is settled and obvious. Anderson was acquired this offseason from Oakland, and he will slot in nicely behind De La Rosa. He is a talented pitcher with a career 3.81 ERA, but he’s struggled with his injuries each of the last four years (via Baseball Prospectus).

    Chatwood came out of nowhere last year to be a competent major league starting pitcher. His 3.15 ERA in 144.0 innings looks even better when we remember the effect that Coors Field has on pitching numbers. While nothing special, he’s perfectly capable of fitting as a third starter for this team.

    Nicasio is an interesting case, as his surface numbers are really affected by Coors, and his peripherals look much better. He has a career 4.92 ERA, but his ERA- is just 113 and his FIP- is actually better than league average at 93. Additionally, his career strikeout rates and walk rates are 18.4 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively—both of which are good enough to be right around league average.

    He has simply been victimized by batted ball randomness. Hopefully he will be able to throw 170 innings this year (he’s never even reached 160), and we will get an opportunity to get a better understanding of his true talent level.

    The fifth spot is up for grabs because of the absence of Chacin. It is expected to go to Morales at this point. This post from Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post suggests that Morales’ recent impressive outing is a positive sign. Additionally, because Lyles still has options, the team does not have to pass him through waivers to get him back to Triple-A.

Bullpen Preview

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    Rex Brothers will be a key member of the Rockies bullpen.
    Rex Brothers will be a key member of the Rockies bullpen.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    RHP Matt Belisle

    RHP Adam Ottavino

    RHP Wilton Lopez

    RHP Chad Bettis

    RHP Tommy Kahnle

    LHP Rex Brothers

    RHP LaTroy Hawkins

     

    Despite the fact that the Rockies have lights-out homegrown lefty Rex Brothers waiting the wings, they brought in veteran LaTroy Hawkins to be their closer this season. Manager Walt Weiss, in talking about Hawkins, said that the righty was “...coming in as our closer. He did an outstanding job the second half of last season.”

    Hawkins’ presence will allow Brothers to be utilized in a variety of situations. The lefty has been fantastic in the big leagues since his arrival in 2011, as he has a career ERA of 2.82 and a strikeout rate of 29.1 percent.

    The remainder of the pen is filled with uninspiring right-handed middle relief types. Lopez actually has a good track record and fascinatingly low walk rate of just 4.6 percent, and Bettis is a young righty with just 16 games of big league experience. Kahnle, meanwhile, is a Rule 5 pick who must remain with the team for the entire season or he can be offered back to the Yankees for a pittance.

    Ottavino is yet another Colorado pitcher whose surface stats—career 4.21 ERA—look much worse than they should because of Coors. His career 89 FIP- shows a pitcher who is actually slightly better than league average despite the ERA. Belisle is a 33-year-old middle reliever who has rebounded from a rough start to his career in Cincinnati to become a fixture as the workhorse of the Colorado bullpen over the last few years.

Prospects to Watch

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    RHP Eddie Butler (front) is a key prospect for the Rockies.
    RHP Eddie Butler (front) is a key prospect for the Rockies.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    For the first time in a while, the Rockies have some exciting pitching prospects. Fortunately for them, both top arms are relatively close to the big leagues. Unfortunately, there isn’t much other talent in the high minors at this point. The only legitimate prospect on the Baseball Prospectus Top 10, other than the elite guys, who will make much of an impact in the majors this year is the aforementioned Chad Bettis.

     

    Jon Gray, RHP

    Gray is one of the Rockies’ big guns. He was drafted third overall in last year’s draft, and as a college senior, he is considered close to the big leagues already—Jason Parks of BP projects his major league ETA as “late 2014.”

    The Oklahoma product is a big righty with massive velocity who ranked 16th on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 prospects and 12th on Baseball America’s Top 100. The fact that he could be an impact arm as soon as next year makes him an extraordinarily intriguing name for all Rockies’ fans to keep an eye on.

     

    Eddie Butler, RHP

    The other name that I’ve been teasing belongs to another righty with big velocity. Butler is built slighter than Gray, and his ceiling is slightly lower, but he is still an excellent prospect. Like Gray, he could make his big league debut this season, which has to be exciting for the Rockies. A rotation with these two in it provides great future depth for a team with a number of choices for their staff but lacking in high-quality options after Jhoulys Chacin.

    For reference, Butler slots in behind Gray on both BP’s and BA’s lists. He is 26th for Baseball Prospectus and 24th for Baseball America.

Breakout Candidates

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    The Rockies have high hopes for Nolan Arenado.
    The Rockies have high hopes for Nolan Arenado.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    As has been mentioned before, the Rockies don’t actually have a ton of youth in their lineup or rotation. Many players they will roll out every day (or every fifth day) are already established as what they are as major league players. The two exceptions to that are a couple of young position players who each debuted within the past few seasons.

     

    Nolan Arenado, 3B

    Arenado is an exciting young third baseman who ranked third in the Rockies’ system (according to Baseball Prospectus) prior to last season, and his rookie season raised hopes above what that rank would normally designate.

    His value last year was primarily defensive: He was the third-best defensive third baseman in baseball last season, and considering his youth (he’ll still be just 22 on Opening Day), there is optimism surrounding his ability to improve offensively.

    His big problem last year was his inability to reach base—and that was driven by his insanely low 4.5 percent walk rate. If that ticks up slightly, his ability to avoid striking out and the presumed increase in power that he’ll get as he ages and gets stronger will help him establish himself as a premier third baseman.

     

    Wilin Rosario, C

    As a 25-year-old catcher, Rosario still has a bright future ahead of him. Per FanGraphs’ advanced offensive metric wRC+, he is already an above-average hitter. And with 49 home runs in the past two years, he is known for his monstrous power.

    He is the opposite of Arenado: His problems are defensive. New catcher defense studies at Baseball Prospectus do not speak highly of Rosario’s defense at all. Fortunately for him, his youth should make it easier to improve quickly—and, additionally, we know that catcher is baseball’s most complex position and therefore catchers tend to peak later than other players. Rosario is already a positive on offense, so any improvement there or on defense will make him a legitimate All-Star candidate.

Top Keys to Success

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    The Rockies need new first baseman Justin Morneau to fill in for the retired Todd Helton.
    The Rockies need new first baseman Justin Morneau to fill in for the retired Todd Helton.Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The obvious key to success for Colorado is health. Its two best players have reputations as being injury-prone, and given the lack of talent behind them, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki need to play 150 games and perform well in the middle of the order. Otherwise, too much pressure will fall on players like Justin Morneau or Wilin Rosario—neither of whom can carry a team.

    Another interesting subplot for the Rockies this season will be the performance of their new additions. Sadly, Todd Helton had fallen off quite a bit by the time he retired (negative FanGraphs WAR in 2013), so Justin Morneau won’t have to be a world-beater to be an improvement. He will, however, need to be healthy, which—prior to last season—he hadn’t been since 2008.

    Pitching is always a problem in Coors Field, and the Rockies will hope that bringing in Brett Anderson will help. However, he is just one arm, and they have always struggled to get competent performances from their staff. Walt Weiss and his staff will need Anderson, Chacin and De La Rosa to stay healthy all season and perform to their capabilities.

    If the team somehow manages to stay in contention through August, a final key to watch will be the performance of the top prospects, Gray and Butler. Either of them could come up and contribute from the bullpen or in the rotation if the team needs a late-season boost.

Previewing Colorado’s Opening Series

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    Colorado will face Marlins righty Jose Fernandez on Opening Day.
    Colorado will face Marlins righty Jose Fernandez on Opening Day.David Goldman/Associated Press

    The Rockies open the 2014 season with a four-game interdivisional matchup with the Miami Marlins.

    Unfortunately (and symptomatic) for Colorado—seeing as how they are a team that wishes to contend this year—they likely won’t have the starting pitching advantage in more than two games. They will roll out De La Rosa on Opening Day, and (according to ESPN’s schedule) they will follow him with Anderson, Chatwood and Nicasio.

    De La Rosa will face Marlins sensation Jose Fernandez in a game that will draw far more interest from people curious about how the Miami righty will begin his sophomore season than for any particular Rockie reason.

    The rest of the series will feature roughly even pitching matchups, with Anderson taking on Nate Eovaldi, Chatwood opposing Henderson Alvarez and Nicasio facing Jacob Turner.

    Without the injured Chacin, the Colorado rotation gets mediocre quickly. Fortunately, though, neither Tulowitzki nor Gonzalez is injured yet, so the Rockies will have a fair shot at taking three of four.

2014 Rockies Season Outlook

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    The Rockies need a series of breakout performances to compete in 2014.
    The Rockies need a series of breakout performances to compete in 2014.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The Colorado Rockies will essentially need everything to go right for them to even compete. They are woefully outmanned by the division favorite Dodgers, and the National League is so deep that they won’t even compete for the Wild Card spots past the All-Star Break.

    On the basis of talent and expectations, they will probably finish last in the NL West. It’s difficult to see them getting the performances they need out of their marginal performers, and it’s difficult to see Gonzalez and Tulowitzki staying healthy all season—and the Rockies certainly need that.

    They’re slightly penalized here by the fact that they’re in a tough division. Each of the Padres, Giants, and Diamondbacks are roughly .500 teams, so Colorado would really need to be good to finish out of last place. And with their current talent base, I simply don’t see that happening.

    Final Prediction: 77-85. Last in NL West.

     

    All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.