This season was so close to being something special (when you have been in the playoffs just 3 times in your history, any playoff appearance is special). But everything seemed to change at the end of July. On Saturday night July 30 Trevor Story sliding into 2nd tore his tendon in his thumb (as he drove in his 72nd run in the team’s 104th game), but it wasn’t clear the nature of the injury until Monday. Then on Sunday with the game close but the Rockies beating Noah Syndergaard at 4-3 and Boone Logan struggling (and with Scott Oberg who was red hot as a reliever ready to go) Walt Weiss left Logan in to pitch to Neil Walker with 2-outs (under the theory he is a worse hitter from the right-side…despite twice as many homers from the right side), who promptly cranked out an 0-1 pitch for a homer spoiling the Rox chance for a sweep in New York (and ruining what would have been a 6-1 road trip on the East Coast against two winning teams). Then the Rox did nothing on Monday before the trade deadline expired, despite having several potentially interesting assets in Charlie Blackmon and Boone Logan.
The decision to hold onto the team’s assets both in terms of veterans (evidently there were no major inquiries into either Carlos Gonzalez or Jorge De La Rosa). There is a good argument for having kept both players, as Logan has been the one of only three pitchers keeping the Rox bullpen becoming an inferno topping the Waldo Canyon Fire here in Colorado Springs in 2012 that we thought was going to leave our whole neighborhood looking like the surface of the moon. You might think that if you are not going to the playoffs why not let it all burn down (better draft picks…etc.) but establishing a winning culture at 20th and Blake is important and there is also the argument that consistently seeing great pitching performances lost by the bullpen can play havoc with the long-term mentality of young starters. As for Blackmon, no one knows if David Dahl is the real thing (okay, I am betting he is that plus) or if Ramiel Tapia can be a major league starter. Yes, he’s over 30 but without a lot of baseball mileage. Plus, he has shown steady improvement since he became a full-time starter in 2014. So, no argument with holding the cards they had. As for trading for a few relief arms there were two big factors Jeff Bridich had to consider. First, there is no guarantee that a reliever having a decent enough season to warrant a trade would maintain their performance the last two months of the season (especially when a reliever has not had much experience at Coors Field). Second, you have to give something to get something. Some examples, the Dodgers traded 28-year old Mike Bolisnger to get Jesse Chavez, a 33-year old reliever (who had a 4+ ERA before the trade, better at LA but that is no surprise simply from a stadium aspect). Bolisnger isn’t a future ace or anything but in 2015 he made 21 starts with a 3.62 ERA (though his FIP was higher at 3.91). He had struggled this year, in 6 starts he had a 6.83 ERA but in a league always starved for starting pitching (and the Dodgers particularly starving this year as judged by Bud Norris getting a start in Game 2 of the Rox-Dodgers double-header), it showed what had to be given up for a reliever that is pretty much league-average. For a real difference maker reliever, like 32-year old Joe Smith who has been one of the better set-up men for a several years, the Cubs had to give up
21-year old A-ball pitcher Jesus Castillo, a promising arm who in 5 starts since the trade has a 2.52 ERA and 20Ks in 25 innings. Or look at Scott Feldman, a 33-year old pretty good starter now a reliever (primarily) who was very good with Houston and dreadful so far with Toronto but cost them 18-year old Guadalupe Chavez who is now Houston’s 23rd ranked prospect (excellent farm system and still far away from majors accounts for his lower rank). Now, maybe you think that the Rox should have made those deals (there is also the aspect of salary involved), but I am not sure either of these two men make that bullpen much better. Only a decision to trade at least 1 if not 2 top 10-15 prospects or the willingness to take on a lot of salary (as in David Robertson the White Sox closer) would have improved that bullpen. So…a very defensible decision then.
But it left the Rox facing a bullpen that was both tired and running into poor performance among just about everyone. Of course the biggest factor for the Rox in their bullpen implosion was the meltdown by excellent July performer and closer Carlos Estevez. He proceeded to move from July to August and blow his first two save opportunities (at home versus the Marlins, a key series considering they remain ahead of the Rox in the Wild Card Standings) and then lost his job when he then made it 3 in a row against the Rangers blowing a 3-1 lead in the 9th into a 4-3 loss.
What happened when July ended? Did the league finally figure out Estevez wasn’t throwing strikes consistently (July ERA 1.80 ERA with 4BB in 10 innings, August ERA 12.27 with 5BB in 7.1 innings)? Or Scott Oberg (July ERA 1.69 with 1BB in 5.1 innings, August ERA 9.82 with 5 BB in 7.1 innings before being finished for the season with a nasty injury) similar unfamiliarity with the strike zone? And there was Jon Gray’s weird regression to 2015 form, after throwing a 1.89 ERA in July to a 6.21 ERA in August. And for him it wasn’t even the rise in walks. What was it? Regardless when the calendar flipped the Rox were seemingly fielding a very different team (and with injuries and DL moves to Story and Reynolds, missing time by CarGo and DJ it was offensively and defensively as well as Tyler Chatwood’s move to the DL on the rotation). The team went from a solid July of 15-12 (and a great start after the All-Star Break) to an 11-15 August pending Game 2 vs. the Dodgers. But looking back at those individual games if the bullpen had held leads or at least held opposing teams scoreless in the final 3 innings, they would have won 9 more games even without any additional offense. Had the team had a healthy 25 they had in July? Maybe even more games? The Rox enter September as the only team with a positive run differential with a losing record. Just based on the math formulas, they should be 67-64 instead of their current 63-68 (which would make them just 3.0 instead of 6.5 out of the 2nd Wild Card). Their 9-17 record is another painful area for this team (and points to why the Rox signed Chad Qualls and Jason Motte in the off-season, two moves that sadly haven’t worked). Those 4 missing wins based on run-differential are found in those 1-run games alone.
And then there is the bizarre performance against winnings ball clubs and losing ones. As has been pointed out, their last 4 series wins have all come against division leaders, going 8-4 in those games (don’t get me started about the final game versus LA), all during this awful August! And then they get swept by the both the Phillies and Brewers, two teams a combined 33 games under .500! Losing the 5 to the Marlins and Rangers (4 of them at home…ouch) was hard because of how they were lost but they are good ball teams. But after pounding the Cubs 11-4 on Sunday they get swept by the Brewers! But given the Rox credit, they did turn it around and go and take 2 out of 3 in DC. While they have pummeled the Braves 6-1 (part of that big July), and Arizona 8-5, they have struggled mightily with bad teams 2-5 vs Reds, 5-7 vs. Pads, 1-2 vs. Rays). This year will go down as the year of lost opportunities.
So with all that said…what to watch for in September:
1) The Wild Card Race: with 29 games left starting September 1 and beginning the month at best 6.5 out of the 2nd WC slot held by the Cardinals currently (8 back from the Giants and spot #1). The Cards have 13 home games left, and face 6 split with the Cubs, 4 on the road with the Giants, 7 split with the Reds, 6 split with Pittsburgh, and 3…in Colorado. So they don’t have an easy road to the playoffs. But, there are several good teams in front of them aside from the Cardinals. The Mets still have 6 against the Nats and 3 in Miami, but 6 against the Reds, 6 against the Phils and even 3 against the Twins. They may have the easiest schedule in baseball the last month of the season. The Marlins, having lost Giancarlo Stanton, face a tougher schedule. They go to Cleveland to start the month, 3 at home against the Dodgers, 7 split with the Braves, 3 at home with the Mets, and 3 to end the season with the Nats. The Pirates, who lost their ace in Gerrit Cole likely for season, start September with a long home stand (10 games) and have 6 split with the Brewers, 6 split with the Cards, 6 split with the Reds, 4 at home with the Cubs, 4 on the road with the Phils, and a 3 game set at home with the Nats. Their last 3 is on the road with the Cards. And although it is an even year, the Giants are not assured of the playoffs either, and their 8 game lead over Colorado doesn’t eliminate them from a potential chase. They have only 13 home games left to close the season. They have 3 games upcoming in Chicago with the Cubs, and 3 at home with the Cardinals and the rest against the West. These include 6 split with the Rockies (presenting a great opportunity for Colorado to help its own cause), 6 split with the Dodgers (last 3 of the season at home), 7 split with the Pads (they are 9-3 against San Diego), but only left and on the road with the Dbacks (against whom they have gone 9-6).
So what of Colorado? 15 of the final 29 are at home, including the next 6 and the final 3. Their schedule 6 split with the Dbacks, 6 split with the Giants (including the next to last series in San Francisco), 7 split with the Padres (who will likely be trying out a fair number of their top prospects acquired in the last year), 3 in Los Angeles (nice to only have 3 with the Dodgers in LA), and the 6 home games against the Central teams, against whom they have really struggled. They get the Cards who hold that #2 spot for 3 at home, and finish the season with 3 against the Brewers (how sweet that could be if the Rox are still alive to punish the Brewers for last week’s sweep).
Do the Rox still have a chance to make the Wild Card? Yes, not just mathematically but with 3 at home with the Cards and a split series with the Giants, they have the chance to depend on no one but their own performance to cut those two leads in half. If they can continue to play well at home and beat-up the Dbacks at home (they have only won 25 games at home, worse than their road record), figure out the Padres and Brewers…yes. But realistically they have to go 20-9 over the last month, and even in July they only won 15 games. And it isn’t just the 20 games that will be key, but they must keep to as few as possible the losses against the Cards and Giants.
But if they are only 6.5 and 8 behind the Cards and Giants, September at least provides reasons to keep the Broncos from taking hold of sports viewing in Colorado…and to give all of us reason to not just watch the Rox but maybe even pay our own money to go and see them in person.
2) Seeing Future Faces: The last 5 years the only thing that we have had to motivate us to watch the Rox is seeing the prospects show-up at Coors. Last year we got to see Jon Gray. And…that was it pretty much. We have already gotten to see Trevor Story, David Dahl, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, Carlos Estevez, Matt Carasitti, Tony Wolters, Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray as rookies this year (yes, Gray debuted last year but…you know…he’s a rookie). And getting to see Stephen Cardullo go from Independent Ball to hitting a grand slam…pretty fun (if Cardullo can provide a right-handed cheap bat that can play both outfield spots as well as first…that is nice cheap utility piece).
Last September because of injuries we got to see Tom Murphy make his debut, but he has languished in the minors despite tearing the cover off the ball since July 1, he sits in AAA. Once the Isotopes are eliminated Murphy should finally get to Coors Field. Tonight’s broadcast the announcers made mention of Nick Hundley’s handling of the young pitchers (Jeff Hoffman) especially as it regards a pitch that got an out after Hoffman started off 3-0 on the hitter. That is a classic example of “an intangible” as they call it. Which would be great if…if it was backed up by statistics. Hundley is seen as a poor game caller. And the ERA on games he starts versus Wolters are proof of that…you may know the young pitchers and give them confidence but…you also are seeing your pitchers give-up more runs. The simple fact is even with his big homer off Maeda, his last 7 games his OPS is just .600. Add to that the increasing number of wild pitches that have been occuring when he is catching and…there is really no reason that most fans…and most analyst…can see for Hundley still being the starter in Colorado. Or really, still playing. But we should get to see Murphey catch at least 7 or 8 games in that last month and see action in a few more.
Other guys on the 40-man roster who we will mostly get to see include the much anticipated Raimel Tapia. Every year his detractors say his approach will finally max out at the level he is assigned to…and each year he keeps hitting. Tapia started off really cold, and then hit his way from AA to AAA and in August since his call-up is hitting .327 with an OPS of .817 (will Tapia be a 10 homer guy or can he become a 20 homer, 30+ doubles hitter?). His speed will also should serve the team and his defense has improved greatly from where it was in High A a year ago (still work to be done on his routes but might be able to stay in center). All of us can’t wait to see the 42nd rank prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus.
There is a chance that we might also get to see German Marquez, since he won’t be throwing in Arizona Fall League and has looked solid since his promotion. If nothing else he might give one more bullpen arm to help out (Eddie Butler since adjustments made to his mechanics has looked like a new pitcher the last month though still not the high strikeout guy the Rox thought they had but should help the bullpen as well).
Oh…and of course we get to see Rafael Ynoa again…
3) The future of Walt Weiss and Carlos Gonzalez: A lot has been made in most Rockies fan sites and the professional coverage about Weiss’s future. A lot of the things that many of us have complained about…his bullpen usage, giving at-bats to Hundley over Wolters, and the like may in fact reflect organizational philosophy, in which case he is doing what Jeff Bridich wants to see. Weiss is said to be a good developer of young players and it is true that Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have really grown since he became manager, but how much of that is to do with Weiss and how much to do with them. The same with Trevor Story and David Dahl, though in all these cases sticking with a player when they hit the eventual slump that comes with young players has been big. His handling of young pitchers like Gray, Butler, Matzek, Anderson, Castro and Estevez not so much. Steve Foster and Darren Holmes have helped a lot this year…but Weiss’s handling of these young arms has at times been highly questionable.
And it seems like Weiss struggles with game management. As if he is on auto-pilot. In August when it was clear Estevez no longer “had it” he made the inevitable, “I’m sticking with him as my closer” statement…and then the next day had to take him out of that position. In the 2nd game of the double-header versus the Dodgers, much like the Boone Logan game in New York, it was evident from the first batter of the inning that the Ottovino didn’t have it…control all over the place. But at no point was any attempt made to prepare the net…instead he Zero to a 5 spot and a blown save. While often pulling starters too early, he leaves relievers in at least one or two batters too many. And as both Estevez and Ottovino have shown, he doesn’t think outside the box to play match-up instead of just throwing out his “closer.” In the Dodger game Ottavino faced Seager, Agon, Grandal (a switch hitter), Reddick, Pederson and Toles…and never considered using Logan or Rusin, who yes threw in the earlier game (against a right-handed dominate lineup…why not Lyles in place of one of them so you had a lefty for the night game if that was the issue?). When your team has lost so many close games, allowed so many huge comebacks during the season, the responsibility yes, always lies with the players, but it highlights not putting your team in a position to best win games. Either that or you really are not that good of a team (which the management has stated all year long they are). I was surprised to be honest with only 2 months left on the contract and a promising season beginning to fade away that he was not let-go in early August after the Rangers or Phils series. What will the Rox be looking for in management for 2017? And can Walt Weiss prove to Jeff Bridich and ownership that he provides it? Stay tuned in October.
As for CarGo, if he plays and plays well, does that increase his chance of being here in 2017? And beyond? Or if he goes off in September does he finally become too valuable to be kept? If David Dahl and Tapia play and play significantly the last month and show they are ready, since Parra is pretty much an untradeable stock, do they clear the backlog of outfielders by trading CarGo? A lot of fun things to watch (if Jordan Patterson were on the 40 we might get to see him as well – another fun prospect – which would further add to what the team learns about its outfield and 1B options going forward…but that would require removing someone from the 40 and what would they do without Ynoa and Paulsen). September can teach the team a lot…and showcase others for the trade market. If not CarGo…Blackmon?
4. The Winning Spirit: I have already talked about the issues with 1-run games, failure to comeback in games, and the poor play against losing teams. There is a solid argument to be made that teams have to learn how to win. Often times teams that are playoff teams in a particular year after struggling for a period of time have to learn how to win. That is why a lot of analyst and General Managers want to see the record of their squad over the 2nd half of the season. Even if their September performance fails to produce a playoff spot (highly unlikely after losing the opportunity to gain ground on the Cardinals by giving up 8 runs in the final two innings), a successful month (18-11 for example or even 17-12) will show that they have learned to play winning baseball over a longer period of time, 2.5 months in this case. Will this team believe they are capable of winning and making the playoffs in 2017? A big part of that is proving it in this 2nd half.
But maybe just as important, will the fans believe it. No one expects the Rox to spend a lot of money this off-season (though money will need to be spent on the relief corp again), or to make a huge trade. While it may be true that in Spring Training hope springs eternal for fans, if September is a 14-15 months showing only one winning month all year, we go into the off-season saying that there is more Fool’s Gold than the real stuff in the Rockies. And if the off-season doesn’t show signs of improvement in the key areas of need, then will fans show-up after Opening Day? And if April is an 8-14 month? The fact remains, as a fan base, even the most purple-tinted glass wearers among us (cough***me***cough) are simply not going to pour out our hearts (or money). And the Rockies players have said it…when they are playing before small crowds, their performance suffers. And if they are playing before small crowds, the payroll will suffer. With Nolan moving ever closer to his Free Agency years, they need to see the turnstiles spinning and eyes locking in to ROOT broadcasts. September baseball may in the end be meaningless…except…its not.