Some 600 miles away from the frigid winter of Denver, CO is a baseball metropolis in sunny Scottsdale, AZ. It’s perfect for the start of the Colorado Rockies six weeks of Spring Training.
Over the 42 days at Salt River Fields in which the team will play 34 contests against the 14 other Cactus League clubs – in addition to a game opposite Team Mexico on March 9 and two games opposite the Kansas City Royals in Las Vegas on March 18-19 – manager Bud Black will learn a lot about his personnel.
There will be battles for a few starting spots and several key contributing roles, discussions about lineup construction, as well as some front office decisions that will impact the team for seasons to come.
“I think there’s competition. If it’s Nolan Jones and Michael Toglia and (Elehuris) Montero, those guys are competing for jobs. (Alan) Trejo,” GM Bill Schmidt said on Wednesday. “We brought Mr. (Harold) Castro in, signed him as a free agent. He’s competing for a job. I think anytime you have competition, I think it’s good for you to process.”
One piece of business handled right away was the one-year extension for Bud Black to remain the manager through the 2024 season. Should he call it quits at that point, he’d the be longest-tenured manager in franchise history.
Here are five questions for the Rockies that need answers before Opening Day.
Will left-handed hitters have an edge to make the roster?
MLB teams are permitted to carry no more than 13 pitchers. Though they’d love to carry a few more than that, they are limited to that number. This means 13 position players will make the 26-man roster.
Colorado had 10 hitters locked into full-time roles before Randal Grichuk was ruled out for the start of the season following last week’s hernia surgery, according to Thomas Harding of MLB.com.
The nine Rockies poised to be on the third base line at Petco Park on March 30: catchers Elias Díaz and Brian Serven; infielders C.J. Cron, Brendan Rodgers, Ryan McMahon and Ezequiel Tovar; outfielders Kris Bryant, Yonathan Daza, Randal Grichuk and Charlie Blackmon.
Of that group, only two of those players bat left-handed.
The decision Black and his staff have to make is whether the remaining three bench roles should go to those players most deserving because of strong performances during Spring Training or to those who offer the lineup flexibility thanks to their ability to hit from the left side.
Elehuris Montero, Sean Bouchard, Brenton Doyle and Alan Trejo are right-handed hitters in big league camp battling for one of these spots at the end of the bench. Nolan Jones, Michael Toglia and Harold Castro are the left-handed hitting options, with Toglia possessing abilities from both sides of the plate.
All seven of these players have minor league options, while Castro is the only of the group not on the 40-man roster.
Other non-roster invitees to camp include switch-hitter Cole Tucker and right-handed hitters Coco Montes and Jonathan Morales, who quietly batted .308 in Triple-A last season while spending time at catcher, first base and third base. Left-handed hitting Grant Lavigne has also been invited despite spending only 57 games above A-ball last season and being left off the 40-man roster ahead of December’s Rule 5 Draft.
What impact will Kris Bryant have on the roster?
When Bryant was healthy through the first 16 games of the 2022 season, Colorado ripped off to a 10-6 start, good for the fourth-best start in the National League.
Over his previous three seasons with the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, Bryant was worth 8.2 bWAR, which breaks down to 2.7 bWAR for a 450 plate appearance season and 3.9 bWAR for a 650 plate appearance season.
If the 31-year-old can resemble a 3.0 WAR player in the Rockies lineup, not only will the team get an added bump from their outfield production, but everyone around him in the batting order will benefit as well. He will, ostensibly, be an aircraft carrier for Colorado.
#Rockies top prospect Zac Veen training with Kris Bryant pic.twitter.com/anitjRIfpA
— Danielle Allentuck (@d_allentuck) February 15, 2023
All reports from the organization have been positive regarding Bryant’s health from the offseason following a 42-game campaign that ended on July 31 following a bout with plantar fasciitis. Considering he’s already in camp and working alongside 21-year-old phenom Zac Veen, the prospects of a return to form in 2023 look positive.
Do Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers have another level of production?
The six-year extension given to McMahon in March of 2022 bought out four of his free agent seasons and will keep him in purple pinstripes through the 2027 season.
To date, RyMac has 20 or more home runs in his last three full seasons dating back to 2019. (His 9 long balls during the 60-game campaign in 2020 would equate to 24 over a normal season.) He’s recorded 80 RBI in two of those years, and his infield defense has been amongst the best in the game. According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, McMahon’s 21 OAA is tied for 10th most since the start of 2021.
As hopeful as the hitting stats seem from that standpoint, it should also be noted that McMahon has never hit as many as 25 homers or driven in 90 runs in a season. There have been indicators that the 28-year-old has another level to his game, offensively. The 2023 season could be pivotal in determining the peak of his potential.
Rodgers took things up a notch last year following a frustrating first month where he batted just .078 (4-for-51). Then, the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft developed into the one of the best hitting second basemen in the sport over the next four months. Coupled with a Gold Glove Award for his defensive prowess in 2022, the upside on the 26-year-old is apparent.
Both McMahon and Rodgers are looking to make their first All-Star appearance this season. In doing so, they’d become the new cornerstones of a Rockies infield that has been without since the tandem of Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story split up following the 2020 season.
Are there enough horses to support Freeland and Márquez in the rotation?
The health of Antonio Senzatela will be a key story this spring as he returns from a torn ACL that ended his 2022 abruptly. The original prognosis suggested he might be ready for Opening Day before an update in December had him on track for a return in May. It’s been two months since that revision and another delay could further hamper a rotation in need of consistency.
Bud Black feels the Rockies starting rotation goes beyond Freeland, Márquez, Ureña, Gomber and Feltner. pic.twitter.com/DvMbZ75ydQ
— DNVR Rockies (@DNVR_Rockies) February 17, 2023
José Ureña did enough last season to warrant a $3 million deal to return that included a club option for 2024 at $4 million. He had some moments and showed enough tenacity to suggest he can fight through those difficult days at Coors Field.
After that, Ryan Feltner and Austin Gomber are the most obvious candidates to fill in the back of the rotation. The two have the most big league experience of all other options and have each thrown over 100 innings over the last two years, a feat many of the younger starting pitching options cannot say.
Those three will not be enough to get through the grind of 162 games. Five starters – and maybe six should Senzatela contribute – is never enough for any team.
Connor Seabold, Peter Lambert and Noah Davis are the lone starting pitchers on the 40-man roster ready to provide Black with some depth. Ryan Rolison, a promising candidate for the rotation the past few seasons who has yet to debut because of a series of unfortunate injuries, is still a month away from returning from shoulder surgery last summer.
Other options exist in Triple-A and should injuries begin to pile up or performances take a dramatic dive, Colorado would be foolhardy to not make a change and give some of these younger starters an opportunity.
Will veteran relievers be preferred over inexperienced ones?
There may be only two open spots in the bullpen after counting the likes of Daniel Bard, Dinelson Lamet, Pierce Johnson, Brent Suter, Lucas Gilbreath and Justin Lawrence among the relief corps. This assumes the PRP injections given to Gilbreath at the end of last season have helped him avoid further injury and that Lawrence will no longer be shuttled back and forth to Triple-A Albuquerque.
Nick Mears, Gavin Hollowell and Jake Bird have big league experience on the 40-man roster, and the latter was immediately one of the most reliable arms in the ‘pen for Black following his promotion last June. New additions Riley Pint and Blair Calvo had success in Double-A last year while Stephen Jones, not on the 40-man, is an intriguing candidate who received an invitation to big league camp.
Then there’s a group of players who may fit the mold of a crafty veteran needed to eat a few innings over the course of a few games. A reliever who can battle until a better option arises. Lefties Ty Blach and Fernando Abad have combined to pitch in the big leagues for parts of 15 seasons, while righties Matt Koch and Phillips Valdéz have both been playing professional since at least 2012.
Performance will play a role here in which relievers Black and company take with them to open the season. It’s one of the many camp battles that will make the next month and a half so interesting to follow.