This past week, I attended spring training for the first time in my life. There are a lot of reasons why it took me so long to reach this all-important baseball milestone, but what matters is that I finally reached it because I’ve married the absolute best man in the entire world, and he agreed that there was no better way to honeymoon than to head to Phoenix in the last week of March. I know, you’re all quite jealous of me now.
While we were in the Phoenix area, we attended three Rockies games at three different ballparks: one against the Royals at Salt River Fields, one against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch, and one against the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium. I’ll save the assessment on which of these facilities you should visit for another time, but suffice it to say that Salt River is far superior to the others. In any case, what I’m really tasked with writing about today is what I noticed from the games themselves. Thus, five reasons we have to be optimistic about this year’s Rockies, based on my brief spring training observations.
1. This is the best starting rotation we’ve ever had.
I think that claim borders on bold, but I also think it’s true. The Rockies have never broken camp with five starting pitchers as strong as the ones they have now. And that’s saying something, given that the staff ace, Jhoulys Chacin, is on the DL. While in Arizona, I saw Franklin Morales, Juan Nicasio, and Jorge De La Rosa do stellar, dominant work against MLB-quality lineups. They each did this while the opposing pitchers, all great, sputtered. Now, everyone knows that spring training is fake and doesn’t really mean anything. Certainly Jeremy Guthrie (to whom I apply the modifier “great” quite loosely), Chris Sale, and Matt Cain will all go on to have solid regular seasons. And Morales, Nicasio, and DLR may struggle. But each of them worked so steadily, so consistently, and so brutally fooled the opposing team’s hitters that I have great hope. Morales was especially impressive, given the fear he has inspired in the past. Nicasio clearly seems to believe he has the stuff to start, and he knows it’s on him to prove it. DLR looks strong and ready to turn in another double-digit win season. And I didn’t even get to see Brett Anderson, who, if he stays healthy (a big if, I know), can out-pitch all these guys and rise to ace-status. This is a good rotation. And it’s been overlooked by many national writers who still think the Rockies are terrible. Don’t get me wrong, they could still be terrible. But with this rotation, and the depth that supports it from the minors (Jordan Lyles, Eddie Butler, Jon Gray), we could see something really special happen on the mound this season.
2. Nolan Arenado is hitting great.
We all know that Nolan Arenado has a great glove. A Gold Glove, in fact. And we all know he underperfomed at the plate last year, and that if he hadn’t, he might have really been in the running for Rookie of the Year. I saw his bat for myself on several occasions, and it is looking hot. Arenado posted a .357 average in spring training, with 3 home runs, 6 doubles, and 10 RBI. He hit one of those homers at Salt River last Monday, and it was a beauty. Arenado is swinging with a confidence he didn’t have last season. His attitude is different, as Troy Renck writes. If he can sustain his offensive production into the regular season, that will be an extremely good thing for us. He’s part of a strong middle of the lineup that can do serious damage if it’s working. Today, he bats 7th, and given the potency that he has, that’s low. But it speaks to the overall strength of the Rockies’ hitting. I think we’ll see Arenado make a big impact this season and come to be one of the more important pieces in the Rockies’ offensive machine.
3. This crazy center field platoon thing just might work.
I don’t claim to understand why Walt Weiss has 6 outfielders on his opening-day roster. There’s likely some kind of trade in the works, or, at the very least, plans to option someone once Boone Logan returns to the bullpen next week. But every single member of the four-person center field platoon looks to add value to the team. I didn’t get to see Brandon Barnes last week, to my great disappointment, as he was on paternity leave, but by all accounts, he was a spring training star. Everybody knows that I love Charlie Blackmon, though he hasn’t quite lived up to his potential in the last couple years. The most encouraging thing I saw from him was on Wednesday at Scottsdale Stadium, when Blackmon and Corey Dickerson were purportedly fighting for a roster spot. Dickerson out-performed Blackmon offensively, as he did all spring, but Blackmon seemed unruffled. He might have swung for the fences, trying to show that he has the goods to be on the team, but instead he drew a couple of walks, and looked as though he understood that there is more to this game than proving yourself. Getting on base is his job, and he did it. He doesn’t have a ton of offensive firepower, but I think he does have some smarts. Drew Stubbs was solid, despite 14 K’s in the spring, and he boasts the most MLB-ready resume of the four. Dickerson impressed the most, though. He showed great hustle on defense, including a spectacular snow cone grab at the center field wall in the game at Salt River. He seems willing to do whatever it takes to cover the vastness of center field. That’s not to mention his offensive performance. I doubt we’ll be carrying 6 outfielders for long, but I think whoever plays center on a given day has the potential to do something great. I’ll take them all.
4. DJ LeMahieu knows how to play baseball.
Much has been said about Weiss’s love for DJLM, and I understand the frustration. He’s an okay player, a little better than a Jonathan Herrera-type, not really good enough for everyday. Weiss probably should have kept Josh Rutledge on the roster, because his bat is better. It wasn’t this spring, though. And I think DJLM is a solid choice at second base. He’s not a star, and he never will be. He probably won’t be the hero in many games. On the other hand, he plays good defense, and he’s smart, and I think those qualities shouldn’t be underrated. Every time I see DJLM play, I come away thinking how he just knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t try to be more than he is, but he’s great at being what he is. All of this might not sound like something to be incredibly optimistic about, since it doesn’t equal other-worldly run production or anything else that spells championship. Give him a chance, though. Too many superstars fail on the fundamentals, and DJLM gives us exactly what we need in that department. It’s worth recognizing.
5. Paul Janish waits in the wings for Tulo’s inevitable injury.
I would love to believe that this is finally going to be the year that Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez play 150 games each. I think they can both easily top 6-WAR players in that scenario, and that’s a lot of games. However, it’s hard to be bullish about Tulo’s health especially, and I’m already gritting my teeth awaiting the announcement that he’s on the DL. If he does wind up there for any length of time, we can kiss our slim playoff hopes goodbye. However, all is not entirely lost. Paul Janish was a spring training beast, outhitting everyone else who had a decent number of at-bats and stealing 3 bases. When I saw him, he looked confident and polished. No, he’s not a great player, which is why he was signed to a minor league deal in the first place. But he might surprise his detractors if he gets a major league call-up. He’ll never even touch Tulo, but he might not be horribly awful. Sometimes, with the Rockies, that’s enough for cautious optimism.