Pressing Questions: The Colorado Rockies

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Scott Pianowski
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Everyone wants to draft Charlie Blackmon, or at least shake his hand
Everyone wants to draft Charlie Blackmon, or at least shake his hand

Meet the new Rockies, same as the old Rockies. Colorado remains the simplest franchise for a fantasy player. Load up on the hitters, run away from the pitchers.

The Rockies are the National League’s highest-scoring team for the 2010s, and they also own the worst ERA in the majors over that period. Colorado’s scoring offense has never been out of the Top 10 this decade, and the best ERA rank is a mediocre 20th. You know what you’re signing up for. Gravity always wins.

Pinball might be fun to watch, but it hasn’t been a winning frame for the team. Too often, the model goes tilt. The last winning season in Denver came in 2010; the last playoff appearance, 2009; the last playoff series win, 2007. And with another losing season expected, if not guaranteed, we have to be careful with some of the current offensive stars — Colorado might be an aggressive seller when the midseason trade market perks up.

You’ve got thin-air questions; let’s take our best stab at some answers.

Q: Can Jon Gray beat the Colorado death chamber and become the franchises’s second star pitcher?

You’re welcome to bet any way you like, but the setup is too jagged for me to take a spin with Gray. And it’s not like Gray is a freeroll; he’s currently the No. 46 starting pitcher off the board in NFBC leagues, with an ADP around 181. There’s something of an opportunity cost here. There’s some buzz with this stock.

The scouting community loves Gray, with good reason. He was the third overall pick in the 2013 draft and he’s bolted up the Colorado system rapidly. He offers a fastball in the mid-90s and three other plus pitches.

Gray posted double-digit strikeouts in six of his 20 starts last year, including a 16-whiff domination of the Padres in September — in Colorado. The game score of 95 is the highest in Coors history, even higher than Hideo Nomo’s 1996 no-hitter (it still blows my mind that Nomo, somehow, pulled that off; his low-key fist pump after the final out belongs in the coolness Hall of Fame). The excitement tied to Gray is legitimate; we see what he can do at his best.

But the problem with Colorado pitchers, even the good ones, is this: their peak is unlikely to be particularly high. Look at the all-time best Rockies starting pitchers by career WAR — only Ubaldo Jimenez (3.66) and Jhoulys Chacin (3.78) posted ERAs below four. Between the thin air of Colorado and the expansive outfield, it’s a horrendous place to pitch. It’s not just the long ball that gets you at Coors, it’s all the short balls that dunk in for cheap hits. And breaking pitches simply don’t move that much in the atmosphere.

Perhaps Gray has enough stuff to be the exception to the rule. If my opponents beat me with a Colorado pitcher, I’ll tip my cap and accept it. I might as well cross Gray off my list right now, because there’s no way I’d treat him as a full-time, every-start fantasy pitcher — and heck, his road ERA last year was horrid (4.91, along with a 1.40 WHIP). Forget timing the market, I’ll just let him be someone else’s problem.

Q: Is Charlie Blackmon’s trade risk enough reason to avoid him? Wouldn’t leaving Colorado ruin his production?

Home/road splits are commonly misunderstood with Colorado hitters, especially when they’re applied to a player that leaves town. While most Colorado bats will have extreme splits and struggle mightily on the road, their profiles tend to level out when they land in a new city.

Here’s the key takeaway: evaluating a Colorado batter once he leaves is not as simple as doubling his established road level of production. When depart Denver, look for a significant comedown in home production, and a notable upgrade in road production.

Back to Blackmon — he’s been a $30-34 producer in 5×5 value for the last three years. His 2015 profile was more about power than speed, but he flipped the script — more pop, less bags — last year. His career average is .298 and run production is basically guaranteed in this backdrop. I view him as a steal in the second round, and someone worth considering in the second half of the first round.

David Dahl will be popular this spring (AP)
David Dahl will be popular this spring (AP)

Q: Can we bid on David Dahl like he’s a sure thing? Early ADP is inside the Top 100.

Dahl was a Top 50 prospect on all the major clipboards entering 2016, and he quickly justified the love, making a major step forward in his age-22 season. Three smashing months at Double-A and a ridiculous three weeks at Triple-A forced a promotion to the majors, where Dahl slashed .315/.359/.500 in 63 games. He showed pop (seven homers) and speed (5-for-5 on the bases) with the Rockies, and projects as the starting left-fielder this year.

Like most prospects, you can throw some cold water on the case if you really want to. Dahl’s .404 BABIP is a glaring outlier, and he had a modest walk rate (6.3 percent) against a healthy strikeout rate (24.9 percent). NL pitchers are sure to make adjustments the second time around.

Dahl’s been compared to Andrew McCutchen on the high end, and even if he falls short of that, perhaps he turns into another Blackmon for Colorado. The siren song of Coors Field is enough for me to consider Dahl around his current ADP, which is around Pick 91.

Q: The Rockies gave Ian Desmond how much? To play where?

Colorado landed Desmond on a five-year, $70 million contract in mid-December, a move that was quickly rejected by the baseball cognoscenti. The signing also cost Colorado a first-round draft choice. Desmond slides over to first base in Colorado; he’s a low-contact, modest-OBP player; and he’s coming off a messy second half (.241/.305/.398) in Texas.

I suspect Desmond might be a sneaky fantasy value in some leagues, where owners are perhaps likely to hold his curious contract against him. We don’t have to pay Desmond the $70 million out of our own pockets, and we don’t care if he plays a quality first base (at that contract, he’s going to stick in the lineup no matter how bad his defense gets). Desmond’s .865 OPS from the first half is just as real as his crash-landing in the second half, and his average haul over the last five years is an acceptable .269-80-22-78-20. Add a little Colorado car wash to that profile, and I figure Desmond can beat his current ADP of 62.

Blake Street BS: After D.J. LeMahieu’s career season, he’ll probably settle in as the No. 2 hitter again, pushing Trevor Story lower in the order. The only thing I don’t like about LeMahieu is the depth of the second base position; you can find reasonable keystones at just about every price point . . . The catcher job will be an open audition in spring. Tom Murphy’s power potential makes a mark, but Tony Walters might be a better defensive bet . . . Adam Ottavino’s uniform (No. 0) is the first attention-grabber, but his plus fastball and slider could translate into a fun closer, if you can stomach a relief pitcher at this altitude. Ottavino returned to action in the second half and was the closer for the last seven weeks, collecting seven saves. With 11.7 K/9 and five strikeouts for every walk, this is what a ninth-inning stopper looks like.

Rockies Projected Lineup

Charlie Blackmon, CF

D.J. LeMahieu, 2B

Nolan Arenado, 3B

Carlos Gonzalez, RF

Ian Desmond, 1B

David Dahl, LF

Trevor Story, SS

Tony Walters, C

Rockies Projected Rotation

SP Jon Gray

SP Chad Bettis

SP Tyler Anderson

SP Tyler Chatwood

SP Jeff Hoffman

CL Adam Ottavino

RP Jake McGee

RP Jason Motte

RP Mike Dunn

RP Chad Qualls

Previous Pressing Questions

Boston Red Sox

Projected lineups courtesy of Roster Resource