DENVER — Critics feast on the Rockies.
Unlike franchises with longer traditions of success, Colorado receives no benefit of the doubt.
The consensus from Las Vegas is that the Rockies will fall from grace with a thud, posting a .500 record or thereabouts. A seven-year drought from 2008 to 2016 fuels skepticism as the Rockies, despite achieving back-to-back playoff berths for the first time in franchise history, never stray far from their past. A National League West title -- their first ever -- would go a long way toward changing that. As would a World Series crown. Both goals remain on the minds of the players whose sip of postseason experience has left them thirsty.
"Yeah, that's 100 percent the biggest driving factor personally," said All-Star shortstop Trevor Story as pitchers and catchers reported for physicals in Scottsdale on Tuesday. "Getting swept by the Brewers, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We ran into Milwaukee, and we feel like we could have done better than we showed. We will be more prepared because we have more experience under our belt to help us play better."
They have to get there first. A path exists -- it starts with frontline aces Kyle Freeland and German Marquez -- but many potholes must be navigated to reach the finish line, like a suspect bullpen, lingering concerns about a position change for the disappointing Ian Desmond and a thin bench. That said, I offer my first way-to-early 25-man roster projection, knowing it could change with one tweaked hamstring or achy elbow this spring:
Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray, Chad Bettis.
Nobody uses five starters. The strength of this group is in layered -- the excellence of Freeland and Marquez, the innings eating of Gray and Anderson and the depth provided by Bettis, Jeff Hoffman and possibly Peter Lambert. Greatness in baseball is achieved by being consistently good. That is what the Rockies require from Freeland and Marquez. They pair needs to deliver a minimum of 390 innings and an ERA around 3.10, which is likely with good health. Freeland told me he's working on using his changeup differently in both location and sequencing after continuing to cull intel from catcher Chris Iannetta. Gray is a wildcard given his issues with pressure. However, he can still be a valuable piece in the regular season. Anderson is effective, but vulnerable because of his fickle changeup that too often becomes a souvenir. Honestly, Antonio Senzatela makes more sense as a starter than Bettis. However, he might be more valuable in the pen. Keep an eye on prospect Peter Lambert, and if Hoffman doesn't fit then trade him for another asset.
Wade Davis, Scott Oberg, Seunghwan Oh, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Chris Rusin, Antonio Senzatela, Mike Dunn.
This is an issue. Losing Adam Ottavino hurts, made worse by the fact that he could have stayed had the Rockies not given $54 million to Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee, two of the league's worst relievers last season. This much remains certain: Of this group, Shaw, McGee, Chris Rusin and Mike Dunn, two of the four must be functional and reliable. I liked the Shaw signing. And then he decided to abandon his cutter for a slider as Coors Field invaded every crevice of his mind. McGee throws too many fastballs in a league where everyone throws hard, so my expectations for him are modest at best. Rusin is a strong bounceback candidate and perhaps Dunn can become a viable option after a season lost to injuries. The problem with my projections is that it involves no hiccups from Wade Davis, Scott Oberg and Seunghwan Oh. All three are talented. Depth is desperately needed. This is where Senzatela could provide a boost. Regardless, a trade will be required for the Rockies to reach the playoffs.
Daniel Murphy, Ryan McMahon, Trevor Story, Nolan Arenado, Garret Hampson, Mark Reynolds
Any infield anchored by Arenado and Story ranks among the league's best. Arenado lives in the 1-percent tile, his career on a Hall of Fame arc. Story emerged as a star last year after reducing strikeouts. He is a Gold Glove-caliber defender with a rare combination of speed and power for a shortstop. They must play well, because any regression will fuel speculation that Arenado will leave via free agency, barring a new deal in the coming weeks. Second base is a much bigger question than the Rockies are letting on. D.J. LeMahieu was more predictable than the sunrise and calmer than a lagoon. His boring was brilliant. McMahon leaned out to be better suited to play second. He has intriguing power, but can he be consistent? Hampson is solid. There remains a chance both eventually cede to top prospect Brendan Rodgers. He needs more at-bats. If he dominates Triple-A, he will likely be on the team in late July or early August. The addition of Mark Reynolds is similar to Matt Holliday last year. Reynolds provides right-handed pop for a bench that had fewer hits than Cardi B. until Holliday arrived.
Chris Iannetta, Tony Wolters
Iannetta profiles as ideal backup: good catcher, strong personality in working with the pitching staff and power and patience at the plate. Iannetta played 110 games last year. I think he would be better if he played 90. That's a hard sell because of Wolters. The game has changed dramatically when Wolters is considered a strong defensive catcher. He's a great athlete. But a great catcher? We can agree to disagree. And he has to be elite defensively after hitting .170 with a .286 slugging clip last season. Maybe the lightbulb goes on offensively this year. But this is a position where the Rockies have to eye an upgrade throughout the season.
Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Ian Desmond, Raimel Tapia
There is pressure on this group to perform given the question marks. Blackmon showed his age last year, and his legs should benefit from spending less time in center field. Blackmon dropped from 86 to 67 extra-base hits over the past two seasons. Can he return to 75 this year? Dahl told me we haven't seen his best. That's tantalizing. When healthy, he's a breathtaking player. Can he be available and anchor a middle-of-the-order spot? It's necessary with Carlos Gonzalez gone. Desmond provided power last year, but his streaks were maddening and his presence in the lineup often indefensible. He had 51 extra-base hits overall. However, he batted .216 vs. righties where he was a boom-or-bust proposition -- 31 XBHs with 109 strikeouts with a .297 OBP in 380 at-bats. That won't work at Coors Field as an everyday player. Can he handle center field? He's a terrific athlete, but the field is bigger and more challenging than any in the big leagues. Tapia needs to play to contribute in meaningful way. He doesn't profile as bench player. If they are going to rotate him, then OK. I wanted Rockies to sign Gerardo Parra, but he signed a minor-league deal with the Giants on Tuesday, per reports.