Rockies Biggest Decision (If There's a Season) Focuses on Bullpen


A week into what was supposed to be the start of the baseball season, and the day before the Rockies were scheduled to host the Padres in the home opener at Coors Field, the sporting world remains in limbo, held hostage by the COVID-19.

Baseball is hoping it will get on the field sometime this summer. There are, however, no guarantees.

If COVID-19 gets controlled, and baseball does get the go-ahead to play, the Rockies figure to head back to their spring training headquarters in Scottsdale, and make the final preparations for the start of the regular season, including making the final decisions on their 26-man roster (or bigger) .

Truth be told, however, the decisions facing the Rockies are minimal, the focus on the fifth starter and final three spots in the eight-man bullpen.

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The Rockies are set with the first four slots in the rotation. German Marquez and Jon Gray both made major strides a year ago. Antonio Senzatela showed signs, and this spring began to master an off-speed pitch that gives him a better arsenal in a starting role. The key is getting Kyle Freeland back on track.

After making the unexpected jump to the big leagues in 2017 and handling himself well, Freeland finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting and set a full-season franchise record for a starting pitcher with a 2.85 ERA in 2018. A year ago, though, things got out of whack, and he was sent to Triple-A Albuquerque at one point, and then spent time on the injured list.

Give the edge to Chi Chi Gonzalez over Jeff Hoffman in the bid for the fifth start. Gonzalez, who missed two years with Tommy John surgery, had his rough spots when he first was called up last season, but was strong in September. He made four starts and one five-inning relief appearance, going 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 innings of work. Gonzalez does have an option, and Hoffman doesn't, but the Rockies are focused on making it into the post-season for the third time in four years so the nod figures to go to Gonzalez.

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The Rockies didn't meet expectations in any area, but there is no bigger concern than a bullpen in which 24 different players were used. The franchise finished with a 5.58 ERA, 30th in MLB. The Pirates had the second highest at 5.19 and Marlins were 28th at 4.74. They also led baseball in the inability to convert saves, going 28-for-54. Wade Davis was only charged with three blown saves in 18 opportunities, but he was moved out of that late-inning role in the final two months. Scott Oberg and Jairo Diaz had five saves apiece.

The biggest question facing the Rockies is how they are going to deal with right-hander Bryan Shaw and left-hander Jake McGee, who have not provided the consistent work as setup men that the Rockies envisioned when they were signed to multi-year deals. They both have $9 million options for 2021 (or a $2 million buyout) if they meet appearance requirements in 2020 and are healthy Opening Day 2021. McGee needs 60 appearances or 40 games finished. He made only 45 appearances last year, and has a combined 32 games finished over the last three seasons.

Shaw, meanwhile, has appeared in 60 or more games in eight consecutive seasons, reaching 70 or more appearances six times, including last season. The Rockies are encouraged with the arms of Jairo Diaz, Carlos Estevez and Yency Almonte. They have four candidates for two left-handed spots, and at least five for the remaining spot for a right-hander.

The games needed for the options to kick in for McGee and Shaw will be adjusted to a proper ratio with however many games may be played.

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The catching situation would appear set with the left-handed-hitting Tony Wolters and right-handed hitting Elias Diaz, who had a strong spring, providing reason to believe he can rebound from a so-so 2019 with the Pirates and regain the offensive effort of 2018 when he hit .286 with 10 home runs.

The plan would pretty much split the chores between Wolters and Diaz, which would keep both of them fresh. Don't look for either to start 100 games.

The insurance policy is the veteran Drew Butera who is a solid receiver, and a strong influence on younger players. Signed to a minor-league deal he will open at Triple-A Albuquerque, barring an injury when the Rockies resume spring training or his decision to opt out of the deal and see if he can hook on elsewhere at the big-league level.

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There's no debate about the infield. It's the same starting four as a year ago. Ryan McMahon was impressive with how quickly he adjusted to second base. Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are in the debate for the best third baseman/shortstop combo in the game. Daniel Murphy is being counted on to provide a bit more offense, and be a more consistent defensive player at first. The Rockies will have him play closer to the bag than a year ago, allowing him to provide a better target for Arenado and Story.

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The outfield has growth potential in left field and center field. Ian Desmond is a steady right-handed-hitting part of the leftfield platoon, but the Rockies need to see more consistency in the field and at the plate from Raimel Tapia. Tapia has a wonderful skill set but needs to make more consistent contact, and has to be more focused on his throws as well as going back on balls. David Dahl was an All-Star a year ago, but finished the year on the Injured List. Charlie Blackmon remains a constant. He plays solid defense, and provided a definite threat at the plate.

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The versatility of Garrett Hampson and Chris Ownings gives manager Bud Black options in both the outfield and infield to get them at-bats, and keep the regulars fresh. Hampson has mastered the middle of the field, and could eventually force his way into a starting role. Owings is a veteran, who adjusted quickly to a utility role when the Diamondbacks decided to move him off the everyday shortstop position.

The sleeper is the left-handed bat of outfielder Sam Hilliard, who was a pitcher until his junior year at Wichita State. He has plus speed, a strong arm and impressive bat. The consistency at the plate is still something he needs to work on, and is why he likely will wind up back at Triple-A Albuquerque, looking to refining his strike-zone recognition. He has too much promise to put into a part-time role.

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