The 2021 National League West Champions, San Diego Padres.

At least its not the Dodgers again, right?

Following the acquisition of two front line starters and an international free agent, the Friars are not planning to contend for a Wild Card, nor do they just want to win the division. They want to be the best in the sport.

And they may have just done it.

Last week, GM A.J. Preller swung deals to acquire 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays and 2020 NL Cy Young Award runner-up Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs, all while keeping the core of their top prospects intact. 

In picking up Korean Baseball Organization star Ha-seong Kim, San Diego has added further depth to their roster for a run at the postseason that will surely take the entire 26-man roster.

Even before the Padres added close to $40 million to the payroll during a 24-hour shopping spree, Rockies’ manager Bud Black recognized the talent of that other club from Southern California. 

“They’re going to be a force,” before adding on December 16, “them and the Dodgers both had great years last year, but every year is different. That’s why we play.”

The odds may seem stacked against the Colorado Rockies right now with Los Angeles’ grip on the NL West looking to extend to nine seasons and San Diego emerging as a force for the next few years, but Black is still speaking confidently about his club in regards to postseason contention for 2021. 

“I’d like to think we’re still in that window.”

The man with over 30 years of professional experience – both as a manager and as a player – sees a way his squad can contend.

“First of all, you’ve always got to look at the pitching as a priority. We feel pretty good about our starters, especially the top of the rotation guys with the guys that we have penciled in (German) Márquez, (Kyle) Freeland, (Jon) Gray, and (Antonio) Senzatela,” the fifth-year skipper shared during his media availability on December 16.

Undoubtedly, the Rockies’ quartet may be among the top ten in baseball when healthy. The group may be lacking a true ace, but each is capable of performing like a No.2 starter for a full season. On their best day, each has the stuff to join Ubaldo Jimenez in tossing a no-hitter.

As for the bullpen, that remains one area in flux especially as Scott Oberg continues to recover from blood clot issues.

“My gut tells me that Oberg is going to be fine. From talking to him, he feels real confident about where he’s at,” Black said of the staff’s most successful reliever. “He’s playing catch frequently. He’s slowly picking up the intensity.”

The comeback of Daniel Bard and emergence of Yency Almonte and Tyler Kinley, not to mention experienced relievers such as Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz, coupled with recent acquisitions of Mychal Givens, Robert Stephenson and Jordan Sheffield suggest the bullpen should see an improvement over the past two seasons. 

“We need our bullpen to pitch better consistently. We can’t just have a couple guys have good years, like we had last year, we need five, six guys.”

The biggest indicator of whether or not Colorado can truly be that contender that’s been promised since 2019 centers around the rumors regarding its two best players.

“What we hear and a lot of times what I read is the same thing that you guys see and the same things that you guys write,” Black said of the stories circling about Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story as trade candidates. “I really have nothing to add to that. But again, my expectation is that they’ll be with us come Opening Day.”

Once Arenado takes his post at third base to chase down a ninth-consecutive Gold Glove Award, lingering questions about his health following a down season caused by a shoulder injury suffered during the first week of the season are minimal, at best.

“I think the shoulder is a non-concern,” Black confirmed. We sort of knew that at the end of the season, if given a month of rest, that shoulder would bounce back. Medically, he’s fine. I think, as normal, he’s preparing as hard as anybody for the 2021 season.”

If it all goes to plan, the Rockies may have something that the rest of baseball is overlooking. 

“With (Charlie Blackmon), Trevor, Nolan, those guys are solid in the middle order. (Raimel) Tapia did a nice job last year in 35 games that he led off…. We need to bounce back from a couple of our younger tenured players. Hopefully, Sam Hilliard and Brendan Rodgers and some other young fellows who are breaking through can make another big step to be a little bit more consistent.”

Black continued to highlight those inexperienced players that could play a pivotal role in returning the Rockies to the postseason for the first time since 2018.

“I’d like to think that Brendan Rodgers can be a guy that can really step forward this year. I think that he’s over the shoulder.”

Aug 25, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Colorado Rockies second baseman Brendan Rodgers against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“Dom has been with us now for (several years of) Spring Training. He’s touched our club a little bit.”  

Another roster concern is the return of Ian Desmond.

“My conversation with Desi leads me to believe that he’s coming back,” Black shared with the media in December. 

Desmond, 35, opted to sit out the 2020 season for a myriad of reasons. “With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now,” he shared in a post on his Instagram.

“He’s shown an ability to hit left-handed pitching here recently and gives us a great option. You know, he’s been an everyday player in his entire career.”

But Black’s former club looms large when reflecting on 2020, even before considering the improvements they’re continuing to make.

“The Padres obviously came on strong this year. You could see it coming a little bit with the emergence of (Fernando) Tatis (Jr) in ‘19… I thought they made a nice couple moves in the offseason… But they had really bounced back years from (Manny) Machado and (Wil) Myers. Those two guys were instrumental, along with Tatis.”

With Darvish and Snell signed through 2023, not to mention the numerous years of control on their young stars, it could be some time before the Padres – or even the powerhouse Dodgers – take a back seat in the division like that of the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants in recent seasons.

As for the Rockies, they might just be caught in the middle in hopes that the window of contention is wide enough to sneak through.

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