UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Looking back, looking ahead as Rockies’ 2021 season ends

“Wait ‘til next year” time has officially arrived for the Rockies. 

So, what might all those fans of purple pinstripes watch for in the coming months? What might they expect come next April? And what should we make of the 2021 season?

After starting 15-31, the young Rockies won more than they lost (59-56) from May 20 through October 1. That suggests the patience Bud Black exhibited throughout 2021 may produce a more competitive team in 2022. How much more competitive will depend on events of the next four months. And that’s not just a veiled reference to Trevor Story’s impending free agency.

A better performance from the bullpen, which sorely missed the physically doomed Scott Oberg, would have given Colorado a decent shot at a winning record this season. Disappointing relief pitching through the first five months easily cost at least seven winnable games. Shift only seven losses to the win column, and the Rockies finish above .500. 

Maybe Carlos Estevez is ready to be the closer after a late-season taste of the ninth inning, though he hardly nailed down that spot in September. And maybe the growth Robert Stephenson and Tyler Kinley showed during the last six weeks is a sign that they can help more next year, though Kinley looked like his earlier self in blowing the lead on Sunday. 

But even if those “maybes” pan out—along with the development of Lucas Gilbreath and the promise apparent in Jordan Sheffield—the bullpen still needs at least two, probably three, dependable new arms. In this era, no team contends without a strong, deep bullpen. (Yes, the bubble includes Ashton Goudeau, who might have value in middle relief; Daniel Bard, who proved he’s not closer material; and Jhoulys Chacin, who showed signs he may be reborn as a late-inning reliever but is a free agent and will have to be signed again.)

As critical as fortifying the bullpen is, however, building a lineup with more punch is equally important.

That begins with re-signing C.J. Cron—whose two-year deal was announced Tuesday.  Looking to revive his career after injuries limited him to 13 games with Detroit in 2020, Cron enjoyed the best overall season of his eight in the majors. His final 2021 line includes 92 RBIs, 70 runs, 131 hits and a .281 batting average—all one-year highs—and 28 home runs (a close second).

Assuming Elias Diaz has turned the corner on offense and secured the starting catcher position, the other real off-season challenge is in the outfield. 

Charlie Blackmon hit .270 with 13 home runs, 78 runs batted in, 139 hits and 76 runs scored, a decent season for most major leaguers. But compared to his previous full seasons as an everyday player, he had career lows in batting average, home runs, hits and runs. Still, Chuck Nazty will be back in right field. His $21 million player option virtually guarantees it.

Five players currently on the roster are candidates for the two spots alongside Blackmon. It should be one spot.  The Rockies sorely need to sign an outfielder with a big bat.  

The holdovers are Connor Joe, Garrett Hampson, Raimel Tapia, Yonathan Daza and Sam Hilliard. All have some redeeming value—Joe might be a late-bloomer like the Dodgers’ Max Muncy, and Hampson resembles L.A.’s Chris Taylor—but look more like parts of a good bench than the missing piece in a championship starting lineup. 

Joe seems to have the most polished plate presence, though the sample size is small; Hampson is a natural center fielder whose speed and infield versatility makes him at least a valuable spare part; Tapia is an improving defender and maturing hitter but was streaky and not nearly enough of a power threat to be a corner outfielder; and Daza is an above-average defender who might hit for average but without much power. The sleeper is Hilliard, who, so far, most resembles Joey Gallo.

The Yankees thought enough of Gallo’s power to acquire him from Texas at the trade deadline, even though he was hitting under .225. The reason? Home runs. In Gallo’s career, he has averaged a home run every 15.2 plate appearances—or every 12.7 official at-bats—while compiling a mediocre .206 lifetime batting average.  Through parts of three seasons, Sam Hilliard has averaged a home run every 16.2 plate appearances (14.7 per official at-bats) while hitting only .225. At this rate, Sam could hit 30-plus homers in a full season. But is that enough?

A concern is that all of those homers don’t translate into a lot of runs batted in. In 2,391 plate appearances, Gallo has hit 158 home runs. But he’s driven in only 181 guys not named Gallo. In Hilliard’s 439 plate appearances, he’s hit 27 homers but driven in only 30 other runners. 

Bottom line: If a Gallo-like Hilliard is in the same outfield with a waning Chuck Nazty, the third outfielder better be more productive than Joe, Tapia, Hampson and Daza have shown they can be. But if the Designated Hitter is added to the National League in the new collective bargaining agreement, as many think, the Rockies could better afford to have Hilliard in the daily lineup. 

What about shortstop? Call me over-optimistic, but I think losing Story could be a case of addition by subtraction.

The Rockies appear to have someone in Brendan Rodgers who is ready to fill that hole. If he’s as productive as Story was in his better seasons, that opens a spot in the infield for a big bat. That could be a second baseman, with Ryan McMahon, who should be Gold Glove competition for Nolan Arenado this offseason, staying at third. What will Marcus Semien cost after a 45-homer season playing second for Toronto? 

Opening Day is March 31 in Los Angeles. It’s the first of seven games with the Dodgers among the first nine of the season, which means the next iteration of the Rockies—hopefully with the right additions—had better be ready to start fast.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.