Look, it is only one series. It was great. But we don’t really believe it do we? Based on what we are all saying her at Roxwalkoff during the games on posts, we still think unicorns are more real than this team. We have all be burned way to much the last 5 years. But maybe, just maybe, there really is a Santa Claus in that roster, and a reason to believe there are presents coming to all the fans who remained loyal.
The “Broken” NL West
The thing is that if we take a look at the NL West, the Rox are actually in better shape than a lot of team there.
The Dodgers rotation after the big 2 is very sketchy (they are counting on Brett Anderson, a guy who the Rox couldn’t count on enough to pick up his $14 million dollar option, which says a lot). Their bullpen until the closer is sketchy. They also have an interesting lineup. Adrian Gonzalez is right now killing the ball, but he also turning 33 this season. They also have a 36-year old SS in Rollins (who is still a good player but again, 36). They are depending a lot on new young CF Pederson. Oh yea, they still have Puig as well. But there are a lot of holes on that team.
The Giants have major injuries issues. They already have Pence on the DL til his broken arm is healed. Matt Cain is back on the DL with forearm strain (a dangerous injury) and they are relying a lot on Lincecum, Peavy, Hudson and Volgeson (lots of age, injury issues, and bad performance recently). They still have Baumgarner who pitched a lot of innings (and gain, since 2008 – in the regular season – his ERA+ is only a bit higher than Jorge De La Rosa), so how will be respond over the season. They lost Panda as well. They are still a good team with a very solid to great bullpen (how will all those innings in the post-season impact the pen). Look never doubt the Giants and Bochy, but it is an odd year, when they aren’t allowed to win.
Then we have the Padres, the team everyone is betting on to win the Wild Card. Yes, they spent a ton of money this year, totally ravaged their farm system, and added star power. I will have doubts about Matt Kemp’s attitude when he hits bomb after bomb that hits the warning track at Petco in the night. They did get Shields but they are counting on a lot of talented but still questionable pitchers. Their bullpen until you get the best closer in baseball (Kimbrel) is iffy. And their defense? It is as bad as the Rockies is good. And that matters in this division.
The Dbacks are a lot like the Rox, counting on young arms and a big superstar in Goldschmidt, but the are a few years behind the Rox . And there is rumor their big money investment in Tomas might be a bust (too early to know for sure) in part thanks to no position and lots of adjustments at bat.
Look, I still think the Dodgers are going to win the division but this is not the sure thing I thought in January. The Padres and Giants might be Wild Card challenges or…they might both be below .500 teams.
But in the end the Rox season is going to come down to themselves. How does a 66 win team that spent its money on a lifetime #5 starter (Kyle Kendrick), a decent catcher (Nick Hundly), a utiltiy guy (Descalso), and a reliever (Jon Axford).
Big Money Free Agents to the Rescue—back in 2011
But of course the biggest “money” they “spent” was on bringing back Tulo and CarGo. Through the first series they both look as healthy as they ever have. We hold our breath everytime they go for a ball but so far so good. Can they get 600+ PA from them? If they do, that matters a lot to this team. And to teams facing them.
Last year the injuries hurt so much because the replacements were simply awful. If you look at their offense in 2014 they had arguably their best offense at home relative to other team’s home performance AND the worst offense relative to other team’s road performance. But if we look at who had a lot of those PA on the road we are talking about Culberson, Rutledge, Barnes, Parker, McKenry, and Stubbs. Even Tulo (whose home numbers were so epic the few games there really bumped up the numbers), Arenado and Dickereson struggled on the road (only Morneau was solid both H/R) znd CarGo was a shadow of himself both H/R and everywhere in between. When you are giving so many PA to subs and young players still learning an approach to hitting you are going to stink on the road. Period. And they did!
But this is not the same lineup as last year. First of all, as we have seen, CarGo is hitting as good as he has ever hit (though we know he goes into bad cold streaks). That is going from a player 11% worse than league average to, if he stays healthy, to a potential MVP (if the team is competitive of course). Tulo is all about health. But if he gets 600PA, does anyone think he wont be in the running for best player in baseball? I know we rely on these two players too much but…they are both MVP quality players…you take your chance on them because they are so great.
Biggest Moves are Helping Dickerson and Arenado to Take the “Next Step”
But maybe as important as those two is the development of Corey Dickerson and Nolan Arenado. Both players have had great expectations on them offensively (Arenado is now being talked with names like Nettles, Robinson, and Rolan defensively, Dickerson has improved to be good enough defensively). But raw numbers won’t tell us much. What matters is have they improved their approach to hitting to be like that of great hitters. We have seen both players look far more mature than at any time last year. Both are young quality hitters, so we should see this. But both players, if they learn the craft, can vastly improve their road performance and take their overall offensive game to All-Star levels. On the road last year Arenado only hit 2 homers and his OPS was over 200 points lower at .713. Dickerson only had 9 of his 24 homers on the road and his OPS was almost 300 points lower at .735 (frame of reference DJ’s HOME OPS was .780, that is how bad they were on the road). Both players are under 25. They are starting their 3rd and 2nd seasons. If they have the approach we saw this first road series, those numbers can be a lot higher (they have to be above .800 OPS, and preferably well above). Maturation of young players is so hard to measure, which is why I don’t like things like ZIPS projections. Yes, both players could go backwards but…I don’t think so. Can Dickerson become a 35 HR, 40 2B player hitting over .315? Can Arenado be a .315 with 20 homers guy? Coming up in the minors both players were given high valuations on their hitting. Neither has gotten to where they can be. Could 2015 be the breakout year?
The “Good Enough” Supporting Cast
They don’t need All-Stars at every position. But All-Star quality at 4 positions is a nice thing. The rest of the starters just need to be league average. Can DJ be league average for his position (he too is still young at 26 with only a tad over 2 years of service time). He is never going to be a big bat, but he has double power, can do a good job working walks, and if he just is 20 points higher on the road in his batting average and increases his .536 OPS (yes, that low) to say .636, that would be huge. As was noted on the website he insides out the ball a lot. He is still learning. I don’t think that kind of increase is impossible (and would probably bring some increase to his home OPS of .780.)
Nick Hundley just needs to be average and work well with the pitching staff (so far so good) and McKenry just needs to be league average backing him up (his hitting last year was a huge increase over anything seen before, but he was finally healthy after a nasty knee injury). And Charlie Blackmon? Well, can he be league average? He had a .755 OPS overall last year but just a .617 on the road (and 6 of his 19 homers). Blackmon is probably the most likely to regress, though in 2013 he had an OPS over .800. If he faces less lefties (his OPS drops 100 points vs. lefties in 160 PA). All he needs to be is average (and play better defense than we saw so far in 2015). Centerfield is a concern for the team especially because Blackmon leads off.
The bench they have constructed is interesting and again has the chance to be much better than last year’s with the ability to be league average with Ynoa, Rosario, Descalso, and Stubbs. Much better than last years group…if they stay healthy. In the minors we have a lot of the usual suspects, but perhaps this is the year Kyle Parker finally forces the team’s hand. Also don’t sleep on some of the up-and-coming guys like Trevor Story (who will K a lot but has power, some speed and a great glove) and Cristhian Adames who has a very nice glove and seems like he might be able to handle the bat (though with little power – wait, sounds like DJ there). They may well be the “next guy up” if injuries hit later in the season.
Oh, and there is some guy at Morneau who can be pretty good sometimes.
But most people in baseball already say their lineup is among the 5 best in baseball, and maybe top 3 counting defense. That is not the issues, as we saw in Milwaukee (but road offense has to be close to the league average road performance). That could bring them a gain of 15 to 20 games – without considering their pitching!
Arms Need to Be for More than Huggging, Growth in Quality and Depth in Rotation and Pen
But just like the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Dbacks…they have injuries and issues in the rotation. What will Jorge De La Rosa give them? Can he be better on the road while still dominating at home? Can he give them 30 starts and 15 wins? He has done it before (2013). So DLR, that is one. But really, Kyle Kendrick? Well, did you note last year with a bad Phils team and bad defense in September in 5 starts he had a 2.78 ERA, 6+ innings, and a WHIP of 1.299. Now at 30 he hasn’t suddenly become Cliff Lee. It does mean with a better change and curve he can have STRETCHES of good pitching, like in the opener. Look, he is going to be mid 4s ERA guy, but if he can give them some good stretches and time for the team to develop its young guys, that is good enough.
Jordan Lyles has worked and worked to fine tune his pitches (his pitches move too much still, but being able to change speeds will make him more of a 10+ win pitcher than a 5-7 win guy, and more like 180 innings). Tyler Matzek is still a question mark but a guy who throws 19 starts and has an ERA right on 4 (for his starts) as a rookie at Coors is interesting. He and DLR were able to solidify the rotation late last year alongside a non-broken handed Lyles. Matzek was the 2nd rated talent in 2009 after Strausburg but fell to the Rox at 9 because of the unsignability. He has upper end of the rotation stuff. Will his control stay solid? If it does, how good can he be? Eddie Butler was “good enough” in his first start but is clearly learning on the job. We had a great discussion during the last game vs. the Brewers over whether he should be here learning at the MLB level. As RMH pointed out, you would rather have Butler learning and on a bad night give up 3 or 4 runs in less than 6 than tossing out a used-up vet like Paul Malholm (which is what I think they should have done) because in Butler you might well have a future #2 or #3 starter. If he learns from this experience (the bad pitches to Lucroy that set-up the Lind homer), then maybe by June 1 he begins being at least league average…or a little better. If Jorge comes back solid and can give them 28-30 starts and be dominate at home, well, we have a rotation. Is a DLR, Matzek, Kendrick, Lyles and Butler rotation better than and have more upside potential than 2014’s DLR, Anderson, Lyles, Chatwood and Nicasio group? I say yes. Not going to match up in the top 2 with the Giants, Pads, or Dodgers, but can they beat the 3-5th starters? That will be key. Oh, and we know there is help coming in Grey and maybe Tyler Anderson and if they are competitive late in the season maybe a Freeland. We will see.
But the biggest chance this team has to be competitive and at least “a factor” in August is the bullpen. I was high on last year’s group. With a backend of Hawkins, Brothers, Logan and Zero that should have been a very good group. But Brothers blew up, Logan was hurt, Zero struggled in June, and Hawk shouldn’t be the go-to closer. The other guys – Kahnle, Masset, Morales, Belisle, Martin, Bettis, Scahill and Lopez simply wasn’t very good (Kahnle was a positive til hurt and tired late). Every guy in that group performed below their past seasons or their expected aside from Kahnle.
Without throwing around a ton of money and by being willing to be a little ruthless (sending down Kahnle and Brothers) and finding some potentially great value in older failed starters (Brown and Freidrich) this bullpen is actually both potentially very very good and deep. The back end of Hawkins, Axford, Logan and Zero should be hard to score on (even as mad as I was at sending out Hawkins and leaving him out there in the 9th without backup, there were 4 seeing eye/infield hits that got him). That depth allows them to move around who does the 8th and 9th night-to-night and even do some matchups. The rest of the pen has a chance to be a real strength. Betencourt, if he is anything like he was from 2010-2012, adds another former closer to the group who could be a huge asset. Friedrich and Brown are both power arms after to get Ks as well as ground balls (Brown as a reliever has about an 8K/9 inning rate and Friedrich as a reliever is at 10.2 K/9). Bergman is a wait and see long-man, and…that is likely okay. Better yet the group down in AA and AAA includes guys like Brothers and Kahnle as well as talented “prospects” Jairo Diaz, Jorge Rondon, Scott Oberg, and David Hale. That is a much better group of “next man” relievers than 2013-2014, which will be needed in 2015 if the team is to be competitive – at least 12 guys are going to make contributions to a solid-to-great bullpen. They have that level of depth without going to the bottom of the barrel. Those are some big-time power arms.
2015 Still Feels Like a 78 Win Team, but a Much Better One. This Team Will be a Challenge for Their Opposition.
So, this team, so much maligned for doing nothing to help a nearly 100 loss team, maybe shouldn’t be. But maybe they did more than we realize. They didn’t go all Padres and pillage the farm system to bring in a lot of big names that will burst their budget (and may not make a great “team”). They didn’t go all Dodgers and try and clean-up the clubhouse but place a lot of pressure on young guys, old guys, and guys with a big injury history. They didn’t go all Giants and win the World Series in 2014.
But what we saw in Milwaukee isn’t a mirage. This lineup is that good and getting better everyday with young bats learning (and again, with lots of CarGo and Tulo PA). Their defense is going to be scary good. They do have a lot of power (guys able to go between 15-35 homer). And they seem to have approaches to hit on the road. They have a bullpen that can shut teams down from the 6th-9th inning and do matchup. And its not like they needed pitchers to pitch way above their level to sweep the Brewers. Yes, Kendrick gave them 7IP of 0 runs, but they didn’t need him to, and, what we saw is most nights he will keep them in games where they can score enough to win. Lyles did look like a guy ready to have a 3.80-4.10 ERA and eat innings. And Eddie Butler shows potential. If the Rox are even just 95% of league average on the road, that should be enough. The formula we saw in the first thing games is entirely to script and its repeatable. Can they repeat it 80+ times? Well, they gave me reason to not believe it can happen, or at least be really fun to watch them try.
But no. Not drinking the Kool Aid, building the bandwagon, buying playoff tickets or even bragging on them yet. But there is enough there and enough bad things elsewhere in the division that there is reason to believe we might order those things come June 1. This team is for real and the sweep was for real. But season long “reality” may still be a year away. But that is not the end of the world either.
We can all start to think the team has a direction and potential. How long has it been since we could say that?
**** Apologies for sentences missing verbs, words without S’s and the forgetting that Justin Morneau existed. I started a new medication last night which evidently makes these things totally unnecessary. Those weren’t listed on the side effects page. Post has been corrected****