Monday, June 12, 2017

Is This the Best Rockies Team Ever?

By Steve Brenna

As spring turns to summer in the MLB season, misleading first months give way to a clearer picture of which teams will contend, and which will prepare to endure a long season. The expected cream of the National League — the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs — have taken their expected seats at or near the tops of their divisions. However, one club few saw coming is emerging as a dangerous pennant party crasher. If the season ended today, the Colorado Rockies would be the No. 1 seed in the NL, and would host the wild card winner in Game 1 of the divisional series at Coors Field.

It is the Rockies though, they'll fall back to the pack, right? They always bring the bats, but they don't pitch, and they don't play well on the road. Well, not so fast. We may be looking at the best team Colorado has ever fielded.

For the bulk of the last quarter century, one didn't have to look much higher than 4th place in the NL West in order to find the Colorado Rockies. In spite of stars like Walker, Helton, Castilla, Galarraga, Tulowitzski, and Gonzalez rolling through Denver over the years, Colorado has endured seven 90-loss seasons. They've finished last in the NL West six times, and fourth place eight times. While the club has made three playoff appearances, all came via the wild card. Now in their 25th season, the Rockies still seek their first ever division crown.

There has been short periods of winning baseball scattered among all of the losing seasons. Colorado posted three consecutive winning seasons from 1995-1997, powered by a wrecking crew offense that defined the Coors Field mystique as a hitter's paradise. However, nine consecutive losing seasons followed before the Rockies would return to the playoffs in 2007, led by MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, star rookie Troy Tulowitzski, and ace-to-be Jeff Francis.

That team stood just 54-52 on August 1 but famously captured lightning in a bottle in September, winning 13 of their final 14 regular season games and besting San Diego in a legendary game 163 to secure the wild card. "Rocktober" was born, and Colorado rode the tremendous momentum all the way to the National League pennant before being swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.

In 2009, on the strength of the most successful starting rotation in team history (Five starters with double-digit wins) the Rockies set the franchise mark with 92 wins, but were bested in four games in the NLDS by the eventual pennant winning Philadelphia Phillies. The team managed 83 wins the following season, but finished a distant third place in the NL West.

It's been a walk through the darkness for Colorado since then, as they entered 2017 on a string of six consecutive losing seasons that includes three years of 94+ losses. That streak appears bound to be broken this season however, as the Rockies have steamed out to a 41-24 start and currently sit atop the NL West. They've done it not only with a typically stellar offense, but with surprisingly good starting pitching and one of the best back-end bullpens in baseball.

It always begins with the bats in Colorado, and they've been led this season by break out star Charlie Blackmon, established stud Nolan Arenado, and veteran Mark Reynolds, who at 33-years-old is on his way to a career year. The trio has a combined .290 average with 46 homers and 152 RBI through the season's first 65 games. Blackmon currently leads the major leagues in hits, is sixth in batting average, and sits third in RBI, just behind Reynolds. Arenado is second in the majors in doubles and ranks ninth in RBI.

Blackmon, Reynolds, and Arenado have been so impressive they've more than made up for slow starts from Trevor Story and Carlos Gonzalez, and a relative drop-off from reigning NL batting champ D.J. LeMahieu (who still ranks sixth in the NL in hits). Colorado leads baseball in runs scored, and one could still argue they have not fully hit their stride offensively.

While we've come to expect gaudy offensive numbers from the Rockies, lack of starting pitching has been a perennial issue for the franchise for most of it's existence. Ace starters would rather run through Hades in gasoline underwear than make 15 starts a year at Coors, and as a result Colorado has turned to developing starters from the ground up. Homegrown rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have combined for 15 wins in 25 starts and have emerged as the leaders of the rotation.

Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez, another pair of rookies acquired via trade as minor leaguers, have added 8 more wins over 13 starts. Overall, the Rockies starters lead the major leagues with 32 wins, and they've done that without a single victory from projected ace Jon Gray, who has been on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot that will keep him sidelined through June.

Not only have the Rockies gotten length from their starters (Averaging nearly 6 IP per start) they've been witness to a dominant comeback from former all-star closer Greg Holland, who missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Holland leads all of baseball with 23 saves, and has a minuscule 0.89 WHIP to go along with a 1.14 ERA. Jake McGee, a big offseason acquisition following the 2015 season, has bounced back from a rough 2016 and regained the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the AL with Tampa Bay. Toss in Adam Ottavino, who had been very effective prior to a recent bout with shoulder inflammation landing him on the DL, and you have the makings of a shut down bullpen at the end of games.

What about the Rockies historic struggles playing on the road? It's not just a biased perception. The 2009 team that set the franchise record for wins went 41-40 on the road, the only club to date with a winning road record in team history. The 2017 version? All they've done is win nine road series, good for a 24-11 record away from the friendly confines of Coors Field.

Are you convinced the Rockies are a legitimate contender yet? Ok, because there's more. In addition to an already potent lineup, the Rockies have depth on the bench that is already paying dividends. Major acquisition Ian Desmond, slated to be the club's starting first baseman heading into the campaign, has been forced into a utility role thanks to Reynolds taking command of the position. Gerardo Parra, who has served as the primary left fielder, was hitting .318 prior to hitting the DL this week with a quadriceps strain. No sweat for Colorado, as Desmond now easily slides in as the starting left fielder for the duration.

Alexi Amarista, a former starter in San Diego, has taken on a bench role with Colorado and is currently hitting .329. This is a team built to withstand injuries, and the ups and downs of a big league season.

Still, I'm not ready to crown the Rockies NL West champs and World Series contenders just yet. The team has ridden rookie starting pitchers thus far, but there is still 100 games left in the regular season, and the league could still figure out some of the Rockies youngsters. Assuming they will get a healthy and effective Jon Gray back for the stretch run, this team still needs a veteran starter to push them over the top, and they have the farm system to do it. MLB Pipeline ranked the Rockies system No. 8 prior to the season.

The White Sox Jose Quintana immediately comes to mind as a candidate, as does the Royals Jason Vargas, although Vargas' high fly ball percentage may not serve him well in Denver. Regardless, the Rockies should dive heavily into the starting pitching market at the deadline, and they just may find themselves playing late October baseball.

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