If there’s one word the Colorado Rockies dislike above all others, it’s rebuild.
While it’s a fitting description of the current state of their club, perhaps a better descriptor for their situation is reset. Their solution to fix the organization in a new way deals more with the future of the franchise.
GM Bill Schmidt expressed a desire during the Winter Meetings not to block the young players in Colorado’s farm system, especially as several have progressed onto top 100 lists and many others have turned heads in the lower levels of the minors. Even owner Dick Monfort is high on the future, mentioning no less than seven minor leaguers and five prospects who debuted in 2022 during his annual letter to season ticket holders.
So who are the most important players this season to help the Rockies reset and bring them back to the postseason? Who can help the organization avoid something closely resembling a reboot of the same 90 loss total they’ve been averaging since 2019?
Here are the five most important players to watch in 2023:
SS Ezequiel Tovar
It should come as no surprise that one of the leading candidates to win the 2023 National League Rookie of the Year Award would be Tovar. The 21-year-old burst onto the scene last season as he tore up the Double-A Eastern League in his first taste at the level. His 2021 reminded some of the talented teenager signed out of Venezuela, and 2022 catapulted him into conversations as the next Troy Tulowtizki or Trevor Story.
Tovar doesn’t need to be the best rookie in the NL for him to make an impact. He simply needs to be himself, something that elevated him to the big leagues as the youngest position player in franchise history. He has a steadiness and consistency beyond his years, and his defense at the shortstop position was ready long before knocking two base hits in the first two pitches he’d see in the Majors.
Take the home run he hit during the final game of the season. Against Clayton Kershaw in his final start before the postseason, Tovar was worked down and in through his entire first at-bat. With the count 2-2, Kershaw threw the rookie his best four-seam fastball. He hit his spot, but Tovar tagged it 405ft to left-center to give Colorado a 1-0 lead in the second at Dodger Stadium. Not bad at all.
As the leader of the next generation of prospects, it’s vital that Tovar stays healthy, learns the ways of surviving the slog of the 162-game season and continues to develop into what the organization hopes is a multi-time All-Star. Time will tell, but 2023 is a significant chunk of that time.
RF Kris Bryant
Is it odd that a 31-year-old is on a list of most important players for the future of the Rockies? Not when you consider the $164 million remaining on his seven-year deal. Unless the front office is fine with trading Bryant in his late 30’s to another team – like an expansion team in Las Vegas? – and eating a bit of his salary, it’s important that he ages gracefully.
According to Baseball Reference, of the 10 players most similar to Bryant through age 30, only two were able to contribute through their age-35 season: Jim Edmonds and Curtis Granderson. The other eight were comprised of players who lacked Bryant’s pedigree through that point in their career, with only Jason Bay and Kevin Mitchell earning multiple selections to the All-Star Game.
Considering Colorado has $71 million already earmarked for him, Ryan McMahon, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela in 2026, it’s vital that Bryant puts aside any doubt over whether or not the Rockies made a knee jerk reaction in signing him after losing the star power of Story and Nolan Arenado.
RHP Germán Márquez
It may be strange to think this way, but Márquez is at a crossroads with the organization that plucked him from the Tampa Bay Rays as a 20-year-old minor leaguer. He was an All-Star in 2021, pitching a scoreless inning against the American League’s best at Coors Field before struggling through much of 2022 to be consistent.
That kind of disappointing season is the least of the worries for a 28-year-old who still has many great seasons ahead of him. The issue is this: what should the Rockies do to avoid another Trevor Story situation? With a year remaining on his deal, Colorado held onto their homegrown shortstop at the 2021 trade deadline and opted to receive the 31st overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft. (By comparison, the Cleveland Guardians dealt impending free agent Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets before the season and acquired a package of players that included Andrés Giménez, a middle infielder they extended Tuesday with a seven-year, $106.5 million deal.)
Márquez actually has two more seasons before he reaches free agency following the 2024 season, assuming the club will pick up his team-friendly $16 million option this offseason. If the Rockies want to extend their 2023 Opening Day starter beyond that point, they should do it now. If not, they should listen to offers from other teams that would be better than the one they accepted for Ubaldo Jiménez in 2011.
The third option is the most variable: let his deal run out and possibly claim a compensation draft pick in 2025, hoping that player could contribute almost immediately to the big league team in 2026 or 2027 when all of the club’s talent from the farm system will have reached the big leagues.
3B Elehuris Montero
Would anyone be surprised if Montero led the team in home runs this season? Even if the 24-year-old manages to hit 20, he’ll be just the ninth at that age or younger to reach the mark and first since Ryan McMahon hit 24 in 2019. If he managed to hit 30 or more, he’d join Nolan Arenado, Carlos González and Troy Tulowitzki as the only to do it.
There’s another question that Montero needs to answer. It may be less pivotal than the ones about his strikeout proclivity, but it’s an important one worth monitoring all season long: can he stick at third base, defensively? Having a young first baseman with 30 homer power is not a bad thing. It’s less than ideal when you consider how many veteran first basemen are available each and every season, not to mention the defensive benefits to placing fellow first baseman Michael Toglia at the position and watching him save a few runs each week on his way to a few Gold Glove Award nominations.
So, for the team and for the future of the Rockies, watching Montero at third base is equally as important as what he can do at the plate. Doing damage at one and suffering damage at the other negates the upside and puts everyone back at square one.
OF Zac Veen
It’s not often that one of the most important players for a team begins the season in the minor leagues, but that’s the case for Colorado and 2020 first-round pick Zac Veen. Alongside Tovar, Veen is the next prospect expected to make a significant impact on the roster.
Much has been made of the flashy 21-year-old outfielder this spring in his first taste of big league camp after leading the Cactus League in stolen bases before being reassigned to minors. It’s clear Veen will be a base stealer, especially since new rules in MLB have made it easier for aggressive base runners to shine, but it’s his ability to hit for extra bases that will be worth watching as he starts the season in the minors.
There’s no exact timetable for when he’ll make his Major League debut. The only indicator the Rockies will be using is Veen’s performance. As Schmidt told the media in December, “He’ll tell us when he’s ready.”