In exactly one month, baseball returns from its winter slumber with a simple pop of the mitt on back fields all across Arizona and Florida.
Laughs, good-natured ribbing and loud barking from seasoned coaches will fill Salt River Fields when pitchers and catchers report to the Spring Training home of the Colorado Rockies on February 15.
Not everyone will be as jovial as the players assured a spot on the 26-man roster. Those not guaranteed a place on the plane headed to San Diego to begin the season – which is most of the players in camp – will be a bit more serious in their pursuit of earning a place along the foul line on Opening Day on March 30.
This offseason was not the one we witnessed last year following the end of the 99-day lockout. Colorado acquired five notable players, four via free agency: Kris Bryant, Randal Grichuk, José Iglesias, Alex Colomé and Chad Kuhl. A year later, there has been a trade for one player (Nolan Jones), a waiver claim of two more (Brent Suter and Nick Mears) and two free agents, one of whom was around last season (José Ureña) and another who was raised within driving distance of Coors Field (Pierce Johnson).
All of which means the front office will be bringing back much of the squad that went 68-94 last season in hopes that this corps will, for lack of a better term, “play better.”
Starting Pitcher (5)
LHP Kyle Freeland, RHP Germán Márquez, RHP José Ureña, RHP Ryan Feltner, LHP Austin Gomber
Other candidates: RHP Peter Lambert, LHP Ryan Rolison, RHP T.J. Zeuch, LHP Josh Rogers, RHP Karl Kauffman, RHP Noah Davis, RHP Jeff Criswell
The starting rotation for the Rockies has been an area of strength since Bud Black took the helm in 2017. In fact, the talent began to take shape with the likes of Tyler Chatwood, Chad Bettis, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson as the bedrock of Walt Weiss’ time as the skipper.
Of the group that Black has relied upon, only three remain. And one may not be able to make his typical impact.
Kyle Freeland and Germán Márquez will have a quiet combat for the task of making the start on Game One of the season. Whoever wins will become the first Rockie starter to take the ball on three Opening Days. Even though Freeland will spend some time with Team USA as Márquez will with Team Venezuela during the return of the World Baseball Classic, Black will have to decide between his two healthy horses.
Antonio Senzatela, sidelined in August with an ACL tear, is expected to come back in May. The condition in which he returns is something we’ll just have to wait and see. Questions at the back of the rotation will be settled once Senza is back to being a fixture every five days.
José Ureña re-signed after taming Coors Field last season in more starts than not and put together the third-best road ERA among starters. Unless Colorado adds another veteran pitcher, the team will be relying on the 31-year-old in a major way to eat innings and take pressure off the bullpen.
After that, there are still two spots remaining without a proven big league starter to be found. Ryan Feltner learned a lot in his rookie campaign last year while Austin Gomber was unable to harness the potential shown in 2021. They’re both favorites at this point, but a cadre of candidates hope six weeks in Scottsdale can convince otherwise.
Peter Lambert is sixth on the depth chart in terms of MLB starts and innings pitched; however, much of that production came four years ago. Both he and Ryan Rolison have made careers as starting pitchers, but injuries (not to mention the pandemic) have sidelined them a lot. Even when compiling stints in fall and winter leagues, their combined workloads total just 122.0 innings since 2019. Relying on either man for significant starts is a questionable recipe at best.
That leaves options from two player pools: guys who have spent some time in the Show and guys who are prospects waiting their turn.
Minor league signees T.J Zeuch, 27, and Josh Rogers, 28, represent the former. Each has four years of big league experience and should begin the year in Triple-A with Albuquerque unless something unexpected occurs.
Karl Kauffman, Jeff Criswell and Rolison, who’s yet to make his debut with the Rockies, all have upside and could end up starting a game at some point in 2023. Other than the one game Noah Davis was thrown into, he has minimal experience above Double-A.
RHP Daniel Bard, RHP Dinelson Lamet, RHP Pierce Johnson, RHP Justin Lawrence, LHP Brent Suter, LHP Lucas Gilbreath, RHP Jake Bird, RHP Nick Mears
Other candidates: RHP Riley Pint, RHP Blair Calvo, RHP Gavin Hollowell, LHP Ty Blach, LHP Fernando Abad, RHP Matt Carasiti, RHP Matt Koch
The bridge to closer Daniel Bard in 2022 could be one of the sturdiest in the last few years if the more veteran components – Dinelson Lamet, Pierce Johnson and Brent Suter – bring forth the successful parts of their track record.
At 37 years old, Bard has become one of the best closers in the game after being away from the spotlight for seven years. His presence allows Black to shorten contests to eight innings.
Lamet was claimed off waivers in August. The hope was that a healthy two months to end the year with Colorado could springboard him to a key role in 2023. It worked better than planned as the 30-year-old posted a 3.00 ERA in purple going into the final series of the season.
Johnson is no stranger to the NL West having pitched with the Padres over the last three campaigns. The goal is for the Denver native to reclaim his form from 2020-21 when he posted a 3.09 ERA and become an effective setup man to go alongside Lamet.
The top left-handed reliever on the club may be a toss-up, especially if Lucas Gilbreath returns healthy from a flexor strain in his left elbow and if Suter becomes somewhat of a long relieving option. The Westminster native has been incredibly effective for the Rockies as the lone southpaw reliever for much of the last two seasons.
Suter, waived by penny-pinching Milwaukee Brewers, is a solid acquisition. His 3.05 ERA going back to 2019 is among the best for left-handed relievers. Between him and Gilbreath, Colorado could steal more one-run ball games in a best-case scenario.
The final three spots in the bullpen are up for grabs, yet Justin Lawrence seems to be a lock to hold one down, especially considering the promise he showed in 2022. His slider is already one of the most effective pitches in the sport. If he can continue to reduce his walk percentage, Lawrence may even become the 8th inning guy in 2023.
Jake Bird is also a probable for the ‘pen, especially considering how comfortable Bud Black was with using the rookie following his promotion in June. Capable of getting four or more outs, Bird may not have the highest ceiling, but his floor is easily the highest of the lesser experienced candidates.
Tyler Kinley, recovering from Tommy John surgery, should be back during the summer at some point. Someone will need to fill the eighth and final spot until then. And just about anyone could fill this role.
Nick Mears has made appearances with the Pirates the last three years, so he maintains an edge over younger hurlers like Gavin Hollowell and the newest 40-man roster additions in Blair Calvo and Riley Pint. All three of the homegrown products have minimal exposure above Double-A. Regardless, peripheral numbers suggest Pint has the biggest improvements to make before earning his first call-up.
There will be a need for a long reliever and one of the names above could certainly fill that role for three innings at a time. Should that not suffice, a more creative option could be a play. Say, Ryan Rolison?
If Rolison is going to be a starting pitcher going forward, it may take a few seasons before he’s able to consistently take the ball 25 times a year. Allowing him to debut and spend the year with the varsity squad in the bullpen is one solution that checks off the most boxes for all parties involved..
Veterans arms like Fernando Abad, Matt Carasiti and Matt Koch are slated to start with Albuquerque, but all could battle to earn a spot in Denver if things go considerably well for them and extremely poorly for those ahead of them on the depth chart.
Elias Díaz, Brian Serven
Other candidates: Willie MacIver
There’s not much to speculate about regarding Colorado’s duo behind the dish. Elias Díaz is a proven veteran who calls a good game and handles his pitchers quite well. He offers pop and, when locked in, a clutch swing or two over the course of the six month season.
Brian Serven is more of a defense-first backstop. Baseball Savant shows his framing abilities is fantastic (91st percentile) and The Fielding Bible had him at five defensive runs saved during his rookie campaign, a figure that tied him for seventh-best in the entire National League.
Willie MacIver has been waiting in the wings since his promotion to Double-A Hartford at the mid-season mark in 2021 shortly after representing Colorado in the Futures Game. The 26-year-old is not on the 40-man roster yet. All it takes is an injury to the incumbents or an ineffectiveness by Serven, something that struck his predecessor Dom Nuñez, and MacIver could get an opportunity to back up Díaz at some point.
1B C.J. Cron, 2B Brendan Rodgers, 3B Ryan McMahon, SS Ezequiel Tovar, 3B/1B Elehuris Montero, INF Alan Trejo
Other candidates: 3B/OF Nolan Jones, 1B/RF Michael Toglia, IF/OF Cole Tucker, INF Coco Montes
The infield alignment is set for Opening Day. Probably.
Barring a trade of Brendan Rodgers – something that’s been speculated, but given zero credence by the organization – and severe struggles in spring by rookie Ezequiel Tovar, everything is shored up on the diamond.
Ryan McMahon, 28, and Rodgers, 26, are still young enough to go up another level and will have every opportunity to do so as the two most likeliest infielders play 150 games this season.
Elehuris Montero and Alan Trejo are the favorites to man the bench with the latter learning how to play the outfield in hopes of taking Garrett Hampson’s place as the super utility player on the roster. Montero has nothing to prove in Triple-A and the club has intimated that he’ll learn more riding the pine than playing every day in the Pacific Coast League.
Nolan Jones is the biggest wild card of the bunch. His ability to play third base, something we haven’t seen in the Majors since perennial All-Star José Ramírez manned the hot corner with his previous club, could push Montero off the roster. Jones has the most positional flexibility of anyone on the 40-man since he can also play some corner outfield and would probably pick up first base relatively quickly.
The minor league signing of Cole Tucker gives Colorado some insurance in the super utility department if that’s something the club really feels it needs on Black’s bench. Coco Montes is another candidate to learn the outfield and make himself more valuable to the big league roster.
Michael Toglia, like Jones, can find a home either on the dirt or on the grass. He’s the first baseman of the future, especially with his ability to pick it and make aggressive plays with his arm strength. With C.J. Cron there for at least the first three months of the season, there may not be any need to carry Toglia and place him on the bench. A few more weeks or months with ABQ hitting coach Jordan Pacheco could help reduce a strikeout rate that has been alarming throughout much of his pro career.
LF Kris Bryant, CF Yonathan Daza, CF/RF Randal Grichuk, RF/DH Charlie Blackmon, LF/RF/3B Nolan Jones
Other candidates: RF/1B Michael Toglia, LF/RF Sean Bouchard, CF Brenton Doyle
Bill Schmidt’s offseason search for a left-handed hitting outfielder came up short.
The trade acquisition of Jones could allow one to check off that box, but the issue of definitively improving the outfield was not solved one bit. Instead, it’s still more speculation about a fifth outfielder rather than having a proven commodity into the lineup for 140 games.
Kris Bryant is back. Or at least he should be. The 31-year-old is the only outfielder whose name you can write in pen in the starting lineup. (Make sure it’s one of those erasable pens, just in case.)
Yonathan Daza is the incumbent in center field after leading the Rockies in hitting (.301) and showing promise during his short time batting first in the lineup (.404 on-base percentage).
Randal Grichuk can spell Daza on days off and play a solid right field. He’s good for another 20 or so homers and will certainly want to use Coors Field for more power in what will be his first foray into free agency following this, his age-31, season.
Charlie Blackmon will trot out to right field another 50 times or so, but he’s Colorado’s designated hitter at this point. The 36-year-old still provides invaluable leadership given the youth on the roster.
The last outfield spot will be another battle. Jones and the switch-hitting Toglia fit the mold incredibly well given their ability to hit from the left side. Sean Bouchard played so well during the final month of the season that Colorado felt confident enough to trade away a similarly skilled Connor Joe. A great span of 97 plate appearances does not make for a guaranteed place on the roster, but it should give Bouchard an opportunity to earn that spot.
Brenton Doyle is the next best defensive option in center after Daza. The 24-year-old from Division II Shepherd University in West Virginia can hit for power and flash speed with the best of them. Strikeouts have been the death knell for his progression through the upper minors even though his ability to patrol the outfield is big league ready. An impressive spate of games to close out 2022 with ABQ puts him on the precipice of a debut, especially if one of the incumbents suffer a backslide.