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Rockies 2023 season preview

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Getting Kris Bryant back on the field would represent a huge step forward for a Rockies team looking to climb out of last place in the National League West.
Getting Kris Bryant back on the field would represent a huge step forward for a Rockies team looking to climb out of last place in the National League West.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Our next tour around the National League West brings us to the Colorado Rockies, who are mostly relevant to the Dodgers in 2023 because Los Angeles only gets to play them 13 times instead of 19 with MLB’s new schedule format.

But the Rockies plan to be good this year, according the Rockies.

“We have a lot of talent, a lot of good things are going to happen, and I think they are going to start happening this year, and I think we can play .500 ball,” Rockies owner Dick Monfort said in January, per Patrick Saunders at The Denver Post.

Colorado hasn’t had a winning record since 2018, when they made the postseason for a second straight year for the first time in franchise history. In the four seasons since, the Rockies’ .439 winning percentage is ninth-worst in the majors.

Then again, Monfort overestimating the Rockies performance is nothing new, as Nick Groke at The Athletic shared in January.

But how the Rockies even get to .500, something they haven’t done the last four years, remains a mystery. Their offseason involved moves mostly on the periphery, including five trades. They dealt three players off the 40-man roster and added two, with nearly 25-year-old third baseman Nolan Jones the most likely to make an impact in 2023.

The Rockies signed two free agents to major league contracts, bringing back starter José Ureña and adding reliever Pierce Johnson for a total combined guarantee of $8.5 million.

They also extended relief pitcher Tyler Kinley for three years, $6.25 million, which bought out one free agent year and has a club option for another in 2026. He underwent flexor tendon surgery in July and isn’t expected back until roughly midseason in 2023.

The Rockies largest financial commitment of the offseason came when Nolan Arenado did not opt out of the remaining five years of his contract after finishing third in NL MVP voting. That locked in Colorado to pay an extra $15 million to St. Louis — $5 million annually from 2024-26, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts — bringing the Rockies’ total paid to the Cardinals to $51 million as part of the February 2021 trade of the franchise icon.

Colorado’s plan for a rebound seems to rely almost solely on ingredients already in the cupboard.

First baseman C.J. Cron made the All-Star team and hit 29 home runs last year. But he was the only Rockies regular to be even league average on offense, with a 107 wRC+. Of the 20 Rockies to bat even once last year, only two others had at least a 100 wRC+ — Kris Bryant had a 125 wRC+ in 181 plate appearances, and rookie outfielder Sean Bouchard out of UCLA had a 158 wRC+ in 97 PA.

In their 30 years as a franchise, the Rockies have ranked in the top five in the National League in runs scored 27 times. But they finished eighth in a 15-team league in 2020, with a 76 wRC+ that was worst in team history. In 2022, the Rockies “improved” to an 86 wRC+ (13th in the NL), but finished 10th in runs scored.

That Bryant only played 42 games was a huge problem, missing long stretches of time first with a lower back strain then with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. That was no way to begin a seven-year, $182-million contract, though it led to the not-so-fun fact that Bryant has yet to hit a home run at Coors Field as a Rockie.

Getting anywhere close to a full, normal season from Bryant should do wonders for an offense starving for all the help it can get. Our Estevão Maximo tabbed Bryant as the Rockies’ bounceback candidate this season.

Colorado still has some useful position players, with second baseman Brendan Rogers and third baseman Ryan McMahon providing plus defense while being close enough to league average on offense that they were the team leaders in Wins Above Replacement among position players.

The new guy who might make the biggest impression is 21-year-old shortstop Ezequiel Tovar, who debuted last season after hitting .319/.387/.540 with a 150 wRC+ in mostly Double-A plus a splash of Triple-A. Tovar’s average prospect rank this preseason is 33rd, topping out at No. 17 in MLB by Baseball America.

It seems like forever ago now, but the Rockies made the postseason two years in a row for the first time in franchise history in 2017 and 2018, even taking the Dodgers to a Game 163 in the second of those seasons.

In addition to offensive stars Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story, the Rockies seemed to find what mostly alluded them in their first quarter century of existence — a stable of homegrown pitchers that helped solidify an already good team.

Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela were around for both postseason runs, and have since signed contract extensions into what would have been free agent years. That looked like a recipe for long-term success, even with an uneven performance in the four years since.

Rockies trio of Márquez, Freeland, and Senzatela

Year Starts IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR
Year Starts IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR
2017 77 452⅔ 4.37 116 9.1 5.8
2018 79 488⅔ 3.50 135 12.9 9.3
2019 75 403 5.87 88 1.0 4.0
2020* 38 225⅔ 3.83 136 5.9 4.4
2021 83 457⅓ 4.39 110 6.1 8.5
2022 81 448⅔ 4.81 97 4.4 5.4
*60-game season

That trio took a step back in 2022, with a below-average ERA+ and decreases in WAR. But even worse were the other five pitchers to make a start for the Rockies in 2022. That group started exactly half the games, and put up a 5.67 ERA and 4.81 FIP, with the team going 30-51 in those starts. Colorado was 38-43 in starts by Márquez, Freeland, and Senzatela, with that group posting a 4.81 ERA and 4.40 FIP.

Both Senzatela and Freeland are signed through 2026, with the Rockies holding a team option on Senzatela for 2027. Márquez has one more year on his contract, plus a $16-million club option for 2024, so there’s still time for this group to pace the staff and perhaps lead the Rockies out of the doldrums.

At FanGraphs, Michael Baumann was so confounded by Márquez’s home/road splits that he advocated for a trade. “Ever since 1993, the best prescription for a struggling Rockies pitcher is to get him back to sea level,” Baumann wrote.

Trading a 28-year-old could help replenish a farm system that has improved recently, ranked as No. 12 in MLB by Keith Law at The Athletic and 16th by Kiley McDaniel at ESPN. But dealing Márquez wouldn’t be the Rockies’ way. They didn’t trade pending free agents Trevor Story and Jon Gray in 2021, and not only did they keep closer Daniel Bard last year, they extended the 37-year-old for two more seasons.

2023 outlook

The Rockies won’t be a winning baseball team this year, whether they know it or not. But at least they will probably see Todd Helton elected to the Hall of Fame next January, so Colorado fans will have something to look forward to.