It should come as no surprise that the Colorado Rockies lead the majors in several offensive categories, including batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, runs and doubles.
They're typically somewhere in the top third in baseball in offense, mainly because they play half of their games in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the game. Once again, they're doing some serious damage at Coors Field, where they scored seven runs on 10 hits against New York Mets starter Bartolo Colon on their way to a 7-4 victory on Thursday.
The surprise, however, is that they are playing winning baseball—they've had just seven winning seasons in their 21 years of existence.
Not only do the Rockies have a 17-13 record, good for third in the NL West and just a game behind the first-place San Francisco Giants, they also lead the NL in run differential (+27). And they're doing it with a very well-balanced roster that appears to finally have enough pitching depth to compete over a 162-game season. This has rarely been the case over the years.
One very unpopular trade—in which center fielder Dexter Fowler was sent to the Houston Astros for back-of-the-rotation starting candidate Jordan Lyles (pictured) and reserve outfielder Brandon Barnes—and another minor deal to reacquire lefty Franklin Morales has helped the team early on.
With Jhoulys Chacin—who won 14 games while posting a 3.67 ERA in 31 starts last season—on the disabled list with a strained shoulder to start the season and newly acquired Brett Anderson joining him soon after with a fractured finger, Lyles (2.70 ERA, 1 ER allowed in 13.2 innings at Coors Field) and Morales (3-1, 4.55 ERA in five starts) have stepped in and done a terrific job holding down the fort.
The bullpen has also gotten the job done despite "closer of the future" Rex Brothers struggling at times, former setup man Matt Belisle falling out of favor and Wilton Lopez pitching his way back to the minors. There have been plenty of bright spots.
Signed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract this past offseason, 41-year-old veteran LaTroy Hawkins has posted a 2.38 ERA while converting all nine of his save opportunities, while Adam Ottavino (1.35 ERA, 7 holds) has taken hold of the primary setup role and Boone Logan (2.89 ERA, 4 holds) is quickly becoming the go-to lefty in the late innings.
Rule 5 draft pick Tommy Kahnle (1.93 ERA, 3 holds) and rookie Chris Martin (3 IP, 0 R, 4 H, BB, 3 K), acquired from the Boston Red Sox along with Morales this past offseason, have also contributed and look like good bets to solidify the middle innings. So does former Cincinnati Reds setup man Nick Masset (6.2 IP, 0 R, H, 0 BB, 8 K in Triple-A), who is on his way back from a shoulder injury that has kept him out of action for most of the past two seasons.
Of course, the Rockies will continue to rely on an offense that is easily the best in the game right now. It might not be as powerful as those during the "Blake Street Bombers" era of the mid-90s when sluggers like Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, Ellis Burks and Dante Bichette gave the team multiple 40-homer threats in the middle of the lineup. But, it's still no joyride getting through the top six or seven hitters of this lineup, either.
While Fowler is off to a mediocre start in Houston, his replacement at the top of the Rockies order, Charlie Blackmon, might be the most improved player in baseball this season. The 27-year-old is hitting .369 with five homers, seven doubles, seven walks and seven stolen bases through 29 games.
Two of the three players that Blackmon beat out for the starting job this spring, Barnes (.810 OPS, 2 2B, 3B, 3 SB) and Corey Dickerson (13-for-34, 2 HR, 3 2B, 3B, 2 SB), have also gotten their share of playing time with Michael Cuddyer on the disabled list nursing a strained hamstring. The machine that is the Rockies lineup hasn't slowed down one bit, despite losing the 2013 batting champ, who was off to another terrific start this season.
The storylines don't stop there, though. What about the resurgence of Justin Morneau (.967 OPS, 6 HR, 8 2B, 22 RBI)? Or the emergence of Nolan Arenado, a Gold Glove winner at third base who is showing signs of a breakout season at the plate (.311 BA, 4 HR, 7 2B, current 21-game hitting streak)?
But in the middle of it all, to no one's surprise, is Troy Tulowitzki.
Leading the majors with a .370 batting average, the 29-year-old has seven homers, 10 doubles, 22 runs batted in, 21 walks and 14 strikeouts. A healthy Tulowitzki can carry a ball club.
On this team, he's still THE superstar. But he doesn't need to carry the load.
So what makes the Rockies' success sustainable?
They won't continue on this offensive tear the entire season. They'll cool off. But not as much as you might think.
Think about how scary this lineup would be if Carlos Gonzalez (.778 OPS, 6 HR, 6 2B, 19 RBI) and Wilin Rosario (.675 OPS, 3 HR, 5 2B, 13 RBI) can get it going. Gonzalez has homered in back-to-back games, which is probably a bad sign for Mets pitchers, who still have to face them on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Colorado.
There won't always be five or six hot hitters in this lineup. But three or four, especially when one or two of those are Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, would be realistic. And it would be plenty to keep the momentum rolling.
The starting rotation can also be much better.
Chacin is expected back as early as this weekend, joining Lyles, Morales, Jorge De La Rosa (18 IP, 4 ER, 16 H, 6 BB, 12 K over last three starts) and Juan Nicasio (4.19 ERA in six starts), who has shown signs of breaking out and becoming a solid mid-rotation starter. If anything, they should be strong enough to hang around in the division.
Anderson, who was looking strong in the early going (3.60 ERA, three shutout innings at San Francisco in his last start before exiting with the finger injury) could return by mid-June and Tyler Chatwood, who had a 3.12 ERA in 20 starts last season, could also help down the road if the strained flexor tendon that recently sent him to the disabled list isn't too serious.
What makes this Rockies pitching staff stand out more than others, though, is that a pair of elite, close-to-major league ready pitching prospects are waiting in the wings.
Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray, the 26th and 16th ranked prospects in baseball, respectively, by Baseball Prospectus, could both be in Colorado sometime this season and could play a huge part in elevating this team to a legitimate playoff contender.
Both have had their ups and downs with Double-A Tulsa, but many believe that the duo are close to figuring it out.
Up until his last start when he allowed five earned runs in six innings, the 23-year-old Butler (pictured) had a 2.87 ERA in five starts with seven walks and 25 strikeouts in 31.1 innings.
The 22-year-old Gray, who is in his first full big league season after being taken with the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, has allowed just one earned run over his last three starts with three walks and 19 strikeouts in 17 innings.
Instead of trying to add pitching at the trade deadline, the Rockies could just look to these two for help. I guarantee you they're much better than any pitcher that changes teams in July.
While there are still a lot of "ifs" in the equation, the Rockies COULD be a force to be reckoned with in the National League. For now, I'm comfortable saying that they ARE good enough to hang with the Dodgers and Giants at the top of the NL West through at least the first week of September. And for a team that hasn't done much winning as of late, that should be good enough.
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