It is time. They are here. Pitchers and catchers report to the Rockies facility today, Saturday the 21st. I love baseball and this is one of my favorite days of the year. Everything old is gone. Everything is new. Hope springs out of position on the diamond.
But of course it isn’t everything new. Some times old things haunt a club, and for the Rox as they start 2015 that is certainly the case. So here is a list of five things to watch for as Spring Training unfolds:
- Injury and recovery – #1 on every list looking at the Rox focuses on the injury situation. The Rockies have 3 serious injuries from 2014 that have to be healed if this team has any chance of being a contender after mid-April. Can Tulo move? His hip injury and surgery was no joke. It was maybe the most damaging injury of his career and now no longer young in baseball years and having lost season after season, the question of whether his body is going to be ready for 140 or more games is really a question. Then there is CarGo who should have undergone the surgeries he had in 2014 last off-season. If his knee and hand are close to 100% he can win an MVP, especially playing right field where his arm will I predict bring a few web-gems his way. The third injury is Jhoulys Chacin, who smartly chose not to undergo shoulder surgery and is making $5 million he would never have had if he underwent the surgery. Word is he feels great. If he is healthy and can give even 90% of 2013 this rotation goes from bad to competitive really quickly. But can he? These 3 players are the difference between playing meaningful baseball in September and 100 losses.
- Which young player surprises – Every year on every team there is a young player who just amazes in Spring Training (Spring Training is actually less useful in player evaluation than September baseball, so take it for what it is worth). But it can accelerate a young player’s timeline to The Show. A player like David Dahl or Raimel Tapia could be so exciting he starts in AA with a chance for a June call-up. Other players who could make that happen include Kyle Freeland, Trevor Story, Ryan McMahon or Tom Murphey. Since the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward and Manny Machado teams no longer believe you have to be 23, 24, or 25 to start your career. Any of the guys I listed above could play in 2015 at Coors, if they start hot and stay hot. The farm system has been rated between 5 and 10 by the experts so there is all sorts of talent here. Does it make itself known in March?
- Trade bait – we know the Rockies have needs and at the same time have players they would like to deal. Wilin Rosario and Boone Logan immediately spring to mind (Logan wasn’t as bad in 2014 as I thought once I reviewed his season, but he is still expensive for a team with other bullpen options). All it takes is a catcher going down the first week of Spring Training games for Rosario’s value to jump. Having him take balls elsewhere helps his value. The Rox will also be watching (along with the rest of baseball) which starting pitchers become expendable because a team’s prospects force a veteran out.
- Young Guns – the team clearly would prefer to keep all of their group of young arms in the minors til at least June. Had Tyler Anderson not had the stress fracture to his arm he was the exception, probably penciled in as the #5 starter, but that is mute now. Jon Grey and Eddie Butler had odd 2014 seasons, in part due to injury, in part due to still learning, and in part due to the team’s approach to these unique riches. But if either of them (or both?) is lights out in Spring Training they may force the issue. A great problem to have. And don’t sleep on Freeland who some scouts now rate above Butler. He hasn’t thrown much in the minors, but as pointed out above, these days guys can be ready sooner than they were 10 years ago. There isn’t much special starting talent aside from the big 4 (close to the majors that is) but these four along with Matzek and Lyles could be your rotation in a year or two. And I for one can’t wait til we see them, and depending on how Spring Training goes, that may be sooner rather than later.
- Position battles – The Rox come to Arizona with most of their 25 man roster already determined. That said there are a few battles and some that might creates surprises. The outfield figures (unless there is a trade) to be locked in as CarGo, Dickerson, Blackmon and Stubbs (a chance for an all lefty outfield), but Kyle Parker could force his way into the top 4 (the team would prefer him getting at-bats in AAA than playing the 5th OF role Barnes has now, but if Parker forces the issue than two platoons may be in place). Likewise the 1B position, where Morneau’s trade value is at its peak and where Parker and Ben Paulsen could push him out or form a platoon. The utility infield spots is also up for grabs, though the Daniel Descalso would have to play himself off the roster. Cristhian Adames has a great glove, Charlie Culberson has the ability to play around the field, and Rafeal Ynoa impressed. There are also non-roster invitees who could be a factor. Related to the utility role is who will be the #2 catcher. Michael McKenry was stellar last year and some of the pitchers like to throw to him. Wilin Rosario is trying his glove around the diamond but could simply earn the #2 spot (his defense has to be better). It is doubtful all three break camp unless Rosario really can play 1B and left field.
On the mound things are more unsettled. The rotation is right now Jorge De La Rosa, Chacin, Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles. The 5th spot is where it gets interesting. Recently signed Kyle Kendricks has the experience and the inside track for #5 slot, but isn’t exciting or a lock. In addition to the kids, the group of Christian Bergman, recently acquired David Hale (younger, better stuff, and upside than Kendricks), and perhaps even Yohan Flande could win that #5 slot (don’t sleep on Chad Bettis, who returns to starting after being a disaster in the bullpen). The bullpen seems set as of now, with plenty of chances for change. We know (barring a trade) that Rex Brothers, LaTroy Hawkins, Boone Logan, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle are set. Christian Friedrich seems to have a lock on another slot (and is my pick for the 2015 version of Adam Miller, a hard-throwing, strikeout machine after failing as a starter). That makes 6 of the likely 8 relievers. Brooks Brown was among the team’s best relievers in the 2nd half and would appear to be the favorite for the 7th slot.
Flande looked good in the bullpen last year and profiles well there (giving the team potentially 4 lefties). David Hale has done both starting and relieving and may get the nod here, though with 2 options remaining if he doesn’t win a starting nod the team likely will send him to either AA or AAA and keep starting. The team also acquired an interesting mix of arms this offseason led by Jairo Diaz and Jorge Rondon, both hard throwers who have some short-term experience in the majors, though more experience at AAA might be their best option. The other reliever on the 40 is Chris Rusin, who was good as a starter in 2013 and bad in 2012 and 2014. He too likely starts in AAA as depth for the rotation. The one everyone will be looking at to see if he can come all the way back from Tommy John so late in life – Rafeal Betencourt. The team would love to see him be able to do it, and count me in among those who hopes we see Betencourt setting up Hawkins for crucial saves from April to September.
How the bullpen shakes down is another interesting battle. I assume Hawkins is the closer til someone takes it, since it helps with the budget (saves still matter at arbitration time) and it allows Brothers and Ottavino to be used in the 7th and 8th if a rally begins.
The Rockies will, even in a best case scenario, use between 7-9 starter and 9-12 relievers. The depth looks good as of now (it did last year and that ended up a disaster), so those battles in Spring Training will establish an order for recall early in the season until minor league stats help the team make decisions on injury or poor performance recalls.
Those are my five things to watch starting Saturday. What are yours? The expectations are low for this team which makes these five things more interesting as it will take the right set of factors to make this team competitive. And it all starts February 21st!