What happened in 2019?
2019 was a season that Rockies fans would probably rather forget. Hopes were high that they could follow back-to-back playoff appearances in ’17 and ’18 (a franchise first) with another postseason run. Those hopes took their first knock when Adam Ottavino opted to go to free agency and eventually sign with the Yankees. A feature of the bullpen since 2012, Ottavino was known for having a dominating slider and a tireless work ethic. They lost Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu and Gerardo Parra the same way – all fan favourites, and all stinging.
The team was opting for youth, with big-name prospects Brendan Rodgers, Ryan McMahon and Garrett Hampson making waves in the minors. They’d all seen time in the majors during 2018 but hadn’t yet featured as starters. Sadly, the gamble wouldn’t pay off. Despite opening the season with two wins on the road at Miami, the wheels would quickly come off. There’s no sugar-coating this – 2019 was a terrible season. Only the aforementioned Marlins and the Tigers would win fewer road games, and the Rockies would post one of the worst records in franchise history. It didn’t help that their 958 runs allowed were the second-worst (Baltimore allowed 981), and most fans will point to the June home series they split with the Padres as the catalyst for the spiral into the basement. The Rockies put all sorts of numbers into the record books – franchise and league, good and bad. After that, it felt like the life was gone from the team. They felt beaten, worn down and exhausted. Injuries mounted, previously reliable talent regressed, and the front office turned to players like Tim Melville to provide some life.
In the end, the Rockies finished fourth in the NL West – their worst finish since 2015. Kyle Freeland, a darling of the 2018 season, posted a disastrous ERA of 6.73, combined with a 3-11 record. There were some bright spots – Jon Gray and German Márquez posted above-average park-adjusted ERA+ (135 and 109 respectively), and four Rockies – Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and David Dahl – would represent the team at the All-Star game.
Brendan Rodgers has long been considered one of the Rockies’ top prospects, bolstered primarily by a terrific 2017 in Hartford (slashing .387/.407/.671). His numbers in Albuquerque in 2019 continued this trend, and he made his major league debut in May. While he took a dip at the top level, the consensus is that he was a victim of not receiving regular playing time. What works against him is that his primary position – shortstop – is currently occupied by one Trevor Story, and his primary backup position is currently taken by another name you may recognise – Nolan Arenado.
Five reasons for optimism in 2020
(1) Nolan Arenado is still in Colorado. The suddenly-public spat between Nolan and the front office had fans on the edge of their seats – the chance that the team and its greatest player ever could wind up parting ways was too much for many to bear. Things have cooled down on that front, however, and while neither side seems to have extended an olive branch, Nolan is currently with the team for practice. It feels remiss at this stage to list his many achievements – suffice to say that the seven-time Gold Glove winner’s presence puts the team in a better place.
(2) Trevor Story continues to get better. His record-setting rookie campaign was cut short by injury, and had he not needed ligament surgery on his thumb in August we may have ended up talking about his 2016 in more reverent tones. Perhaps more impressive than his offensive production, however, is how well he fields shortstop. Initially, a little unpolished, Story has grown to fill the void left by Troy Tulowitzki’s departure in 2015. He routinely makes plays and throws that many players would struggle with – testament to the time he spends practising with Nolan. Arenado and Story combine to make one of the best left-hand side infield combos in the league.
(3) Kyle Freeland’s 2019 campaign should turn out to be an aberration. It was as hard to watch as the season itself, but the young lefty has talent in buckets and provided he can put it in the rear-view mirror, 2020 is a good bet for a rebound. After all, he set the franchise record for home ERA in 2018 (2.40 – a great mark for any pitcher before factoring in that Coors Field is home) and held opposing batters to a measly .240 average.
(4) The spring training competition between Rodgers and Ryan McMahon is worth talking about. These are two players who have proven their talent at Triple-A, and not quite lived up to it at the major level. 2020 is the first time, however, that we’ll legitimately see both players vying for a spot on the roster – and chances are it will be the same spot. There’s nothing like healthy competition to bring out the best in a player, so keep your eyes on the cactus league.
(5) The Rockies have the fifth-hardest throwing rotation in the league. Averaging 94.2 mph and led by Jon Gray at 96, the rotation has more talent than the record and ERA may suggest. German Márquez was a surprising standout in 2019, and 25-year-old righty Antonio Senzatela has also had some bright spots (if he can avoid injury). The fifth slot is more worrisome – Jeff Hoffman and Peter Lambert have not impressed so far, and Tim Melville is realistically nothing more than a feel-good story. The Rockies could look to prospects Ryan Castellani and Ashton Goudeau to fill out the rotation instead. They’ve put up good numbers for the Isotopes and Yard Goats this far – whether they can translate this to success at the top level remains to be seen.
Chris Finlay is part of the team covering the Colorado Rockies for Bat Flips and Nerds in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @chrisjfinlay