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2018 Preview: Colorado Rockies

Colorado Rockies v Philadelphia Phillies

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 22: Nolan Arenado #28 of the Colorado Rockies is congratulated by Charlie Blackmon #19 after hitting a two-run home run in the ninth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 22, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Rockies defeated the Phillies 8-1. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Colorado Rockies.

The Rockies broke a six-year playoff drought last year. It ended in a one-and-done Wild Card appearance, but that’s still the playoffs, so props to new manager Bud Black and the Colorado Rockies. They were far from a perfect team, of course, and they were far from perfection in an odd way compared the Colorado Rockies teams of the past.

Unlike so many Rockies clubs, they had some dang good pitching in 2017. A homegrown rotation of fireballers anchored by Jon Gray and supplemented by four rookies -- Kyle Freeland Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela —gave the Rockies the best starting pitching they’ve had in ages. Tylers Chatwood and Anderson helped settle things down on the back end and the Rockies, once content to lose 11-9 slugfests . . . well, won more of those 11-9 slugfests than they usually do. Look, it’s Colorado. It’s not always pretty, but once you adjust for context, it was pretty darn spiffy last year, pitching wise. It’s worth noting too that many of these guys have upside that went untapped last year. They could be better. When was the last time the rotation was the last thing you had to worry about in Colorado?

At the same time, we’re not too used to the Rockies lineup being a question mark, but here we are. The top end of it is not a problem -- Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon provide arguably the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball -- but after them there are a lot of holes. Besides those two, only Mark Reynolds was an above average hitter for the Rockies last year, and even then he was above average in his peculiar Mark Reynoldsian way (a boat load of homers, a boat load of strikeouts and a lot of confusion most of the time). Reynolds is a free agent who probably isn’t coming back. Ian Desmond, Carlos Gonzalez and Trevor Story are coming back, but each of them were pretty major disappointments last year. If they could capture, respectively, 2012, 2012 and the first week of 2016 again, the Rockies would have something to work with, but that’s not super likely. What will most likely happen again is (a) great performances from Arenado and Blackmon; (b) a lot of runs scored overall; but (c) rather disappointing results once you adjust for Coors Field.

Is there hope for offensive improvement that doesn’t involve a time machine? Possibly. The Rockies plucked Chris Iannetta from the Diamondbacks via free agency and, even if he’s got some miles on him, he’ll improve a dismal catching situation. Possibly with an offensive upgrade, though he’s been inconsistent, but certainly in terms of defense, as he was a great framing catching last year. Ryan McMahon emerged as a nice offensive player in the minors last year, though as a second and third baseman, it’s hard to see how he’ll get playing time here with D.J. LeMahieu and Arenado around. He’s played first base this spring, but Ian Desmond may be there more now that Carlos Gonzalez is back. It’s not certain that he’ll make the roster. David Dahl, an outfielder who has had a nice spring is in the same boat. The speedy Ramel Tapia is a backup at best at the moment given the crowd of veterans. Shortstop prospect Brendan Rodgers has Rockies fans excited, but he’s likely still a year or so away. All of which is to say that the Rockies 2018 lineup may look a lot like it did last year to begin the year, but Bud Black has some options if some of the old warhorses continue to look, well, old.

Also unusual for the Rockies in 2017 was the fact that the bullpen as a clear source of strength. I can’t remember the last time that was the case. The bad news: a lot of that strength left town, with Greg Holland declining his $15 million player option -- he’s still a free agent, so I bet he’s kinda questioning that move right now -- and midseason pickup Pat Neshek leaving via free agency himself. The good news: the Rockies went out and spent around $100 million on new bullpen arms in the form of Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee. You never know what’s gonna happen with relievers, but Davis has been outstanding and should follow his old teammate’s Holland’s example and provide some late inning mile high glory. Otherwise, Bud Black has a lot of good arms to throw at the perpetual problem of short starts in high scoring games in Denver.

All of that leaves the Rockies in much the same place they were last year. A lot depends on the Rockies young rotation showing that last season was no fluke and that, finally, the club has cracked the code of pitching well in Coors Field. I’d never bet the ranch on that, but I feel better about that now than I have at any point in the 25 years I’ve watched Rockies baseball. Beyond that, Blackmon and Arenado will need some help, either from the vets or from the kids. Personally, I’m not at all sure they can count on the vets and I’m not at all sure that the club will simply push the vets aside and give the kids a chance if they’re not getting the job done.

Given how strong the NL West looks to be this year, I don’t see them challenging the Dodgers for the division. But given how weak much of the NL East and NL Central are, they should be in the Wild Card hunt most of the year, with division mates Arizona and San Francisco providing a good amount of competition. Maybe too much, though, which makes me wanna say . . .

Prediction: Fourth Place, NL West

Follow @craigcalcaterra