DENVER -- Wait till next year. It felt more like a warning than a reason for optimism with the Rockies over the last six seasons.
This spring hope is no longer a four-letter word. The Rockies believe they contend, armed with a rebuilt bullpen and a manager in Bud Black who has a history of working magic with pitchers. Will it be enough to play meaningful games in September for the first time since 2010?
The Rockies staged a promising opening Monday in Milwaukee, surrendering a four-run lead before rallying to secure a 7-5 victory.
They return home Friday with two former Colorado prep stars facing off in the Rockies' Kyle Freeland (Thomas Jefferson) and the Dodgers' Brandon McCarthy (Cheyenne Mountain). Surviving April remains critical because of the injuries to first baseman Ian Desmond (wrist) and outfielder David Dahl (broken rib) and the indefinite absence of starter Chad Bettis (chemotherapy treatments for cancer).
The Rockies own an 80.5 over-under number on victories in Las Vegas. There is no reason they can't post a winning record. Reaching the postseason is a different story. But a successful season? Why not.
Here's 3 Reasons:
1) Duh, They Can Hit
The Rockies boast a prodigious lineup even without Desmond. Charlie Blackmon remains one of the league's most underrated players (69 extra base hits, 17 stolen bases last season). Carlos Gonzalez posted a .350 on-base percentage last season. He sunk to 25 home runs, making a rebound to 30-plus realistic. At some point, Nolan Arenado, a player I began campaigning for when he was in Double-A, will win MVP honors. Or at least he should. He needs the Rockies to play better to raise his national profile. Second baseman D.J. LeMahieu won the batting title a year ago. When Desmond and Dahl return, the Rockies will have a deep bench, leaving them capable of mixing and matching better and perhaps stealing a few road victories.
2) The Fixer Upper Bullpen
The bullpen doubled as a grease fire last season. And when the Rockies absolutely needed a save, Carlos Estevez dissolved before their eyes on Aug. 5 and Aug. 8 at home. Colorado rebuilt the relief corps, signing left-hander Mike Dunn to a three-year, $19 million deal. In what might be the most important addition, the Rockies landed Greg Holland. If Holland can rebound from Tommy John surgery, the Rockies bullpen slots well with Adam Ottavino capable of facing more right-handers with his vicious slider. Ottavino put his foot down Monday after two walks, striking out the side with an emphatic scream.
3) The Gray Wolf
When the Rockies contended in the past, an ace delivered. Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook provided an anchor in the rotation. It sets up as Jon Gray's turn. He owns elite stuff -- 94-97 mph fastball, a wipeout slider, emerging cutter and changeup. Gray told Denver7 he's ready to step forward. The key? Winning without his best stuff. He had eight outings of five innings or less last season. He must cut that number in half.
It's hard for fans to keep the glass half full after the past six seasons. The Rockies' last chance at the playoffs came in 2010. They frittered away a game in Los Angeles, and lost 13 of their final 14. It has been an uphill climb ever since. Reasons the playoff drought could continue? Here you go.
1) The Absence of Chad Bettis
Prayers for Bettis. Let's get that out of the way. He recently became a father. He has maintained a positive outlook after a follow-up exam from his testicular cancer revealed the disease had moved to his lymph nodes. Bettis is out indefinitely. Forget pitching. Living healthy again is the priority. Given his illness, it's easy to forget how strong a presence he was on the Rockies. He led the team in innings, games started and wins last season. Without Bettis, the rotation is Three Men -- Gray, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson -- and Two Maybes -- Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland.
2) The Pen Questions
The pen looks much better. But is it? Ottavino battled command issues all spring and Holland must show he's right. The problem is the Rockies can't afford hiccups given their slim margin for error. I believe in this relief corps. But having two young starters could tax the pen by mid May, forcing miscast relievers into leveraged innings.
3) History Hates the Rockies
They have never won the NL West. They have reached the World Series once. They began spring with wide eyes and then dealt with lumps in their throats with the issues involving Bettis, Desmond and Dahl. The young starters create pause. But when the Rockies experienced their greatest success in 2007, it was two kids who made it happen in Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. They need similar finds this year. Hope is real this season. So, too, is the challenge.