DNVR Rockies beat reporters Drew Creasman and Patrick Lyons battle for supremacy discussing various hot topics pertaining to the inhabitants of 2001 Blake Street as well all the scuttlebutt in and around the game of baseball.
The coldest, hardest winter on record for supporters of the Colorado Rockies has finally come to an end.
Spring Training has begun and along with it positional battles, offseason tales of intrigue and – just maybe – a glimmer of hope about the future. (By glimmer, we could be talking about a sliver or morsel. And future? Well, 2026 will be here before you know it.)
Following consecutive sub-.500 seasons and the loss of the greatest player in franchise history, the potential for a successful winning record seem hopeless. The potential of actual prospects, players waiting in the wings of the minor leagues, will actually increase the odds of this year becoming a more hopeful one.
Even pseudo-prospects like The Lost Boys will make Coors Field a proving grounds for numerous Rockies if the ship is to be righted and destination in the distance is to be located. A captain will emerge, as will the first mates while many others will be steerage, merely along for the voyage until taking up space on the next vessel.
With four weeks remaining until Opening Day at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a lot will transpire in Scottsdale, AZ in what should be the first complete Spring Training since 2019.
Creasman vs. Lyons. Falls Count Anywhere… but preferably at Salt River Fields for the entirety of March.
What positional battle(s) will feature the most competition?
Lyons: Center field features the most unpredictable competition in camp. The two main candidates – Garrett Hampson and Sam Hilliard – will duke it out for the most thankless job in professional baseball: patrolling the enormous expanse at 2001 Blake Street.
Hilliard projects as the player with higher upside due to his ability to mash 400ft home runs, run the bases like a gazelle and fire a ball home from the warning track on one hop. He also has the lower floor due to a propensity for striking out.
Hampson’s best position might not even be center field. The former middle infielder moved through the minors quickly thanks in large part to his speed and ability to adapt to new situations. The 26-year-old didn’t play his first game in the outfield until reaching Double-A and still hasn’t played more than 60 outside of the infield dirt in the big leagues.
So far, Hampson has started in center field for a majority of the Spring Training exhibitions, leaving Hilliard to fend for time in the corners and as designated hitter, a feature unavailable to all Rockies players as MLB and the Players’ Association were unable to agree on this rule for the National League in 2021.
Ultimately, it could go either way based on Cactus League play, but the preference to keep Hampson out of the infield as a super utility player could be as much about preserving Brendan Rodgers’ playing time at second base. As such, consider him the favorite over Hilliard.
Creasman: Rarely is the battle for bullpen spots the headliner for a team on a downward trajectory.
Colorado has a surprising amount of depth among relief pitchers and finding out who will be available should anyone falter or be injured is going to be incredibly important.
Other than a healthy Scott Oberg and Daniel Bard, nobody has extreme job security in the bullpen and just about anybody could pitch themselves into a more valuable role with just a few good outings.
This is the year we’ll find out if Carlos Estévez and Jairo Díaz can even out their roller coaster careers or if it’s time for the Rockies to hop off that ride.
Tyler Kinley and Yency Almonte, two of the pleasant surprises in 2020, seem to have a spot on the roster again with the former having an unfortunate option to the minors. Kinley could likely find himself on the outside looking in if all other relievers live up to expectations.
Low-key acquisitions like Jordan Sheffield and Dereck Rodríguez are also chomping at the bit to prove their worth the second an opportunity opens up. However, if Sheffield isn’t placed on the 26-man roster, he will go back to the Los Angeles Dodgers as per the parameters of the Rule 5 Draft.
Additionally, a slew of unproven lefties are seeking to break through a myriad of right-handed relievers.
If everyone is healthy and performing to par, the Rockies may well have their hands tied in a way when it comes to who they’ll carry on Opening Day. Regardless, this is a battle that only starts in spring and will continue throughout the duration of the year.
Are there young players outside the 26-man roster worth watching?
Lyons: There are always exciting players in every MLB camp at this time of the year and Colorado is no exception.
The pitching side is highlighted by numerous upsides that could become exciting names going forward. Left-handers Yoan Aybar (acquired from Boston), Lucas Gilbreath and top prospect Ryan Rolison are worth monitoring, especially as the latter two could make their purple debuts in 2021.
Ben Bowden, a 2nd round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2016, had been sidelined at the alternate site in 2020 with back issues. Other than a hiccup in Triple-A Albuquerque (who hasn’t had that experience?), he’s been successful at every destination. The 26-year-old could be the odds-on favorite to be the only lefty in the bullpen on Opening Day, unless Bud Black and company opt for all righties.
Southpaw Helcris Olivares could be the finest of the bunch. With whispers of front of the rotation potential, the 20-year-old still needs more seasoning in the minors following 46.2 innings stateside in 2019. As enticing as it could be to see his 96mph fastball in the back of the bullpen this season, a more basic approach is what we’ll get, for better or worse.
On the right-hand side, Julian Fernández is back with the organization following an unusual two-year journey, both literally and figuratively. As a Rule 5 Draft selection by San Francisco in 2017 , he eventually trekked to Miami in 2019 following a waiver claim. All the while, Fernández recovered from Tommy John surgery without making his Major League debut and hopes to reclaim his impressive 100+mph fastball.
Creasman: If you aren’t in the mood to wait around too long, Colton Welker is the guy looking to start knocking on the door to MLB. His career .833 OPS in the minors reflects his advanced offensive capabilities to go along with solid defense on the corners.
Ryan Vilade still needs a bit more polish, but has similarly impressed with the bat. His defense has been slightly more suspect, moving him from shortstop to third base and now being seen primarily as an outfielder. Following this transition will be intriguing and whether he can lean into getting the most out of his power swing should be fun for any Rockies prospect watchers.
Of course, if you are fine with thinking a bit further into the future, there may be no more exciting members of the farm system than the prospects set to show up once the big leaguers move north to the start the 162-game slog.
With lower level minor league players set to descend on Arizona in April to prepare for the May 4 opening of MiLB, first basemen Michael Toglia, a switch-hitter with big pop, and Grant Lavigne, a youngster that combines power/defense/speed, are exciting players to eye.
From the 2020 MLB Draft class, outfielder Zac Veen has drawn comparisons to Cody Bellinger while Drew Romo is a switch-hitting catcher with an advanced feel for the most difficult position in the sport. Starting pitcher Chris McMahon could work his way through the minors quickly into the Ryan Rolison hype-level zone very soon.
Can you convince Rockies’ fans to care about Spring Training 2021?
Lyons: We’ve all been there before at some point. You love your city and are forced to love the team. Through good times and bad. It’s a relationship that lasts longer than actual marriages.
So you can’t give it up just yet, but you’re sick of looking at it. Well, there’s hope. Or maybe we can hope to have hope at some point in the near future.
Players like Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers and German Márquez are going to be around for several more years and, regardless of the change of players around them, this new core of stars will take the club to the precipice of postseason once again. Maybe those players and the success of those teams emerge in spite of the lackluster leadership of the organization, but they’ll be back.
And it’s with this, with these players where the slow climb starts back upwards out of the basement of despair. The beginning of the next era of Rockies baseball. The genesis of the next generation.
Creasman: Spring Training has always been, at least for me, about individual growth.
The easiest way to enjoy it is to separate whatever happens out on the field from “what it means” for the Rockies to be competitive this season as they almost certainly won’t be.
As Patrick mentioned, whether its McMahon, Rodgers, and Márquez trying to prove to the wider world that they can be stars in this game, or even a guy like Hilliard just trying to prove he’s worthy of an MLB career after being such a long shot throughout every level of the game.
What about Dom Nuñ? Can he realize his potential and become the homegrown catcher the Rockies have never had?
Can Kyle Freeland return to his near-Cy Young levels or at least split the difference and give his hometown fans some joy every five days?
Can Oberg complete his inspiring comeback from a non-baseball related health scare?
How does Trevor Story respond on the field to everything that has taken place off it?
How much does Charlie Blackmon have left in the tank?
And who will be the guy who seemingly comes out of nowhere to suddenly make a name for himself? Who is the next Josh Fuentes, a guy who went undrafted and overlooked all the way up to and through his MLB debut?
One of the best things about Spring Training, especially in a year after so much baseball was not played due to the pandemic, is discovering what we didn’t know before. It’s been a long time since some of these guys have competed at this level and we are going to find out who can emerge much stronger from these trying times.
The Colorado Rockies won’t be winning a ton of games in 2021. But every single day there will be a moment, a great play, or an emerging talent to reward those looking for the finer details of their favorite baseball team.