As Rockies pitchers and catchers reported to Scottsdale, Ariz., to begin 2021 Spring Training on Wednesday, manager Bud Black noted how the scene has reversed itself.
When Black took over for Walt Weiss in 2017, the pitchers — especially the starters — were inexperienced. Rookies German Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman combined for 93 starts. Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood and Chad Bettis passed for “old men” on a team that didn’t have a single start by a pitcher beyond his age 28 season. There was a seasoned group of everyday players – Charlie Blackmon, Carlos González, DJ LeMahieu, Ian Desmond, Mark Reynolds and Nolan Arenado.
The 2021 rotation is not exactly old, but Márquez, Freeland, Senzatela and Gray represent a seasoned group — definitely possessing a longer track record than a position-player group that most likely will field a minimum of four players who will be first- or second-time regulars. Oh, yeah, and the Rockies are without Arenado, who was traded to the Cardinals.
“Now that has shifted a little bit to some younger [position] players who we hope are hitting their stride,” said Black, whose team starts pitchers and catchers workouts Thursday and full-squad workouts Tuesday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. “With [Garrett] Hampson, [Josh] Fuentes, Ryan [McMahon], [Brendan] Rodgers, [Raimel] Tapia, [Sam] Hilliard — this is the next wave of position players for the Rockies.
“All of us on our coaching staff, we realize the importance of those players to our team’s success. It has shifted a little bit, but it’s still coaching.”
Black realizes he’s managing a motivated group.
The presence of Blackmon and star shortstop Trevor Story in the daily lineup hasn’t impressed the projection formulas — 60-102 according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system, and FanGraphs puts the postseason chances for the Rockies at 0.2%. Let’s say a trip to the postseason would be even more unexpected than in 2017, when the Rockies exceeded low projections and earned a National League Wild Card berth.
Black likes what he is hearing about how the players are reacting.
“I’ve read some comments from players who say they’re ready to take on this challenge themselves, and do their part to help our team win,” Black said. “The sum of our parts will be how we move forward, and how we progress this year and years to come.”
The “years to come” part may be most instructive. Arenado and Story were immediate stars. But the Rockies hope others are more like Blackmon, who took three seasons to make an Opening Day lineup, although injuries were his biggest early-career issue.
Black said righty reliever Scott Oberg, who missed the end of 2019 and all of 2020 with recurring blood clots, has recovered from surgery last fall and had a solid preparation for this season. What isn’t clear is how the club will pace Oberg’s activity during Spring Training and into the season.
All three of Oberg’s flareups, including one in 2016, have occurred in August. Part of the mystery is whether the time of year or the workload contributed to the problems. Then again, doctors removed the top rib on Oberg’s right side to reduce constrictions that may have led to clotting.
“It’ll be prudent to watch Scotty and assess it, but most importantly, Scotty feels confident about where he is,” Black said. “How we handle him in Spring Training will be dependent on how he is doing and what he needs to do to get ready for the regular season. There has to be the progression to get into games and throw, but he’s confident he can handle everything that’s put in front of him.”
Losing not only Arenado but also outfielder David Dahl (non-tendered before he signed a one-year contract with the Rangers) dims the projections for home run power. Story and Blackmon have 30-plus-homer seasons in their histories, and recent non-roster signings C.J. Cron and Greg Bird could brighten that picture.
But the Rockies are looking at other ways to score in case other players don’t produce dramatic home run increases.
“There are a lot of things that we’re going to have to do — we are going to have to be better offensively than we have been the last two years, especially situationally,” Black said. “We’re not going to outslug people, so we’ve got to do the little things right. We’ve got to get on base. We have good team speed, so I think that could be an advantage for us.”
Black said the Rockies need to improve at driving in runs with less than two outs, and in situations that swayed games. Black gave no indication the Rockies will revisit the running game of 1996, when they became the first team with 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases in the same season. The game simply isn’t played that way. But there is enough team speed — Story, Tapia, Desmond and Hilliard run well — to find strategic solutions.
“If we sense during a game, or against a certain pitcher, or how guys are swinging, if we do have to be more aggressive as far as the stolen bases, or putting on a few more hit-and-runs, we will do that because we have some team speed,” Black said. “We will highlight the fact that being more aggressive on certain offensive plays like the hit-and-run and stolen base could come into play.”
Hampson could be center of attention
The signing with the Mets by Kevin Pillar, who finished last season in center field, brought into focus the fact Hampson has a clear chance to grab the job in center. Hampson was drafted as a middle infielder, but he has put together an impressive highlight reel of outfield defense. Rodgers will receive every opportunity at second base and Chris Owings can handle that position as well, so center could be calling Hampson.
While not closing the door on Hampson in the infield, Black said, “Center field is a position that we’re looking at to fill. Whether Hampson is the guy, or Tapia moves over [from left] or Hilliard, it’s open. But Hampson is a guy we think could be a major contributor to a good team.”