UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Rockies starting 2022 with a more positive vibe

“Spring training is for getting to know your teammates and forming a chemistry.” 

—Torii Hunter

“Just kind of finding it—that’s what spring training is for, to work on stuff and get ready.”

—J.D. Martinez

Opening Day is here, at last!  So, it’s time to assess the Rockies and their abbreviated preparation in Arizona.

The quotes from Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez sum it up. They know from experience.

Hunter, in case you forgot or never knew, played for the Twins, Angels and Tigers for almost two decades, ending in 2015. He was a five-time all-star and nine-time Gold Glove center fielder.

Martinez, a four-time all-star with seasons of 45, 43, 38 and 36 home runs and more than 100 runs batted in each of them, has played for Houston, Detroit, Arizona and Boston. He will begin his 12th season when the Red Sox open against the Yankees in New York today.

No Rockies fan should be impressed by, or worried about, the team’s record or performance in the Cactus League. Remember what J.D. Martinez says: Spring training is a time “to work on stuff and get ready.” 

If you doubt, consider the records of the teams that met in the World Series last season:

The Astros, who lost to Atlanta in six games, finished the 2021 Grapefruit League season with a dismal 6-13-4 record.  The Braves were 15-12.

What about other playoff teams in 2021? 

The Giants, who won the National League West with 107 victories, went 11-11-5. And the second-place Dodgers, only a game behind San Francisco with 106 wins, were 12-11-5. St. Louis concluded its spring schedule 8-10-5 but was the second NL Wild Card qualifier.

So, what do we make of the Rockies as they leave Arizona to meet Los Angeles tomorrow?

The point of last year’s spring training records, above, is that you can’t judge anything based on how many games the Rockies won or lost in the past three weeks. But remembering Torii Hunter could tell you a lot.

Major League Baseball has decreed that teams may carry 28 players on their active rosters in April, the increase an accommodation to the shortened prep time that resulted from the tardy negotiations between the owners and players.

That means 21.4%—about one-fifth—of the players who don purple tomorrow will be newcomers: Kris Bryant, Randall Grichuk, Jose Iglesias, Alex Colome, Chad Kuhl and local boy Ty Blach. They’re still getting to know their latest teammates.

It’s a Fool’s Errand to try to predict Colorado’s 2022 finish. But it does seem that new general manager Bill Schmidt has made some solid moves in reshaping the Rockies roster.

Signing Bryant and trading for Grichuk should give the lineup more punch. Landing Iglesias to replace Trevor Story at shortstop might actually improve the infield defense. Colome should help the bullpen late in games, and Kuhl and Blach give manager Bud Black experienced options for fifth starter and long relief.

Charlie Blackmon back in the leadoff spot is a blast from the past that could work well. Adding the designated hitter means there’s a place for Connor Joe’s bat when he’s not giving someone else a breather in the field. Retaining C.J. Cron was a must.

More important than all of that, though, is what appears to have happened in the clubhouse and the dugout. The “chemistry,” as Torii Hunter calls it, is different, seemingly significantly better.

It’s refreshing to see and hear so much positivity among the players. Yes, every team is optimistic at this time of year, when they’re all 0-0, as they say.

But this feels different. There’s conviction that this team is on the upswing, honest joy to be part of it.

Where did this new vibe come from? Signing Kris Bryant had a lot to do with it.

As the Rockies have pointed out, Bryant CHOSE them. He wants to be here. He has said repeatedly that he likes the idea of leading this club forward. 

Bryant is impressed by the starting rotation, both its talent and its willingness to pitch in Coors Field. He sees young talent about to blossom—not only Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers (and maybe Sam Hilliard?) but also several prospects who will arrive in the next year or two. 

His optimism has rubbed off. McMahon just signed a six-year extension and proclaimed that he wants to be a Rockie; Antonio Senzatela committed for five. 

Contrast this with the cloud that hung over the team as Nolan Arenado lobbied his way out of a long-term deal and Trevor Story declined to say he wanted to be in Denver long-haul.

The early schedule is not easy—three with the Dodgers; seven, home-and-home, with the Phillies; and road trips to Texas and Detroit among 21 games. But if the Rockies are competitive, it will be a good indication of how the season might go. 

A winning record is not out of the question.

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 dennydressman@comcast.net.