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In search of road back to relevance, Rockies need only look across Salt River Fields

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Stunning photo displays, each adorned with an inspirational message, line the main hallway of the Rockies’ spring training complex at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Perseverance. Relentless. Inspired.

The most dramatic display features some of the franchise’s biggest icons captured in playoff moments: Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Kyle Freeland.


As the Rockies near their 2024 season-opener on Thursday against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field, the road back to Rocktober, indeed the road to relevance, is steep and daunting.

Fresh off a franchise-worst 103-loss season, the Rockies’ .421 winning percentage since 2019 stands as the worst five-year stretch in club history. In a Denver Post online poll, 71% of voters believe the Rockies will lose 100 or more games again this season. It’s not just frustrated and apathetic Colorado fans who predict a rough season ahead, either. Many prognosticators forecast the Rockies as the worst team in the National League. Baseball Prospectus, for example, projects a 57-105 record.

But spring is the season of hope for any team, even the Rockies, who need only look toward the 2023 National League champion Diamondbacks, World Series champion Rangers and AL East champion Orioles for inspiration. All three teams lost more than 100 games in 2021 but pulled themselves out of the ditch to make a dramatic turnaround. Their stories provide optimism, perhaps even a template, for Colorado’s path forward.

But it won’t be easy. While the organization is stocked with talented young position players such as shortstop Ezequiel Tovar and outfielders Nolan Jones and Brenton Doyle, a lack of quality pitching depth, exacerbated by injuries, remains the Achilles’ heel. Losing No. 1 starter German Marquez to elbow surgery last May, then veteran right-hander Antonio Senzatela and three top prospects in July left the Rockies in a hard place.

Still, general manager Bill Schmidt is unwavering in his belief the franchise is headed in the right direction.

“We have some good, young guys working their way up and I think we have the foundation of a pretty good ballclub,” he said. “I believe in them, and they believe in themselves, too.”

The D-backs’ path

The Rockies share the sprawling Salt River Fields complex with the Diamondbacks, a team that serves as a guiding light for the downtrodden. Arizona lost 110 games in 2021, finished 74-88 in ’22, and squeaked into the playoffs as a wild-card team last year at 84-78. In doing so, they became just the fourth team in major league history to go from a season of 100 or more losses to a playoff berth in a three-season span, joining the ’23 Orioles, ’23 Rangers and 2013-15 Astros.

Then Arizona turned sizzling hot in the playoffs, knocking off the mighty Dodgers en route to the World Series before falling to Texas in five.

How did the D-backs do it?

“I’ve thought about it 100 times, for sure — I’ve thought about it 110 times, how about that?” manager Torey Lovullo said when Arizona beat Philadelphia to advance to the World Series. “I can’t wrap my arms around it. I know the Rangers are in a very similar boat. It goes to show you that with perseverance, persistence, hard work, that anything is possible. We’re a small-market organization and we’ve done it from within.”

Indeed, it started with a talented and deep farm system. Then the front office made bold moves. The team became more athletic. Young stars like outfielder Corbin Carroll (NL rookie of the year in ’23) exploded on the scene at the right time. They found two quality starters, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, to anchor the rotation.

And after their 74-win season in 2022, general manager Mike Hazen remained aggressive. Last spring, he traded talented center fielder Daulton Varsho to Toronto for young catcher Gabriel Moreno and hard-hitting outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Hazen insists that the D-backs never tanked. Instead, he says they were fueled by their 110-loss season.

“We were pretty embarrassed about all that happened,” he said. “Back in ’22, the bottom kind of fell out of our rotation with all of the injuries. That’s my excuse. But we didn’t play well at all. We didn’t feel like we were a 110-loss team, but it is what it is. We were a 110-loss team.”

Arizona pulled out of its skid without spending a ton of money. According to Spotrac, Arizona’s total payroll of $119 million ranked 21st in the majors last year. By contrast, the free-spending Rangers had the fourth-highest payroll in the big leagues, at $251 million. Their infield, featuring stars Marcus Semien and Corey Seager with combined contracts of $510 million, was the most expensive in baseball.

The Rockies, by comparison, had a $171 million payroll that ranked 14th. Should the Rockies’ road to relevance work out, it will resemble the D-backs’ much more than the Rangers’.

“There are some parallels with (Arizona),” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “They built from within, for the most part. But every team and every situation is different. The D-backs took some hard knocks. The Rangers and Orioles, too. With us, time will tell.”

Rebuilding blocks

The foundation of the Rockies’ future rests mainly on homegrown players. Of the projected starting lineup for Thursday’s opener, six position players were draft picks, as was left-handed starter Kyle Freeland. Left fielder Nolan Jones, who shone as a rookie last season, was acquired via a trade with Cleveland. Starting catcher Elias Diaz, 33, was signed as a minor league free agent in January 2020.

The only real outlier is first baseman Kris Bryant, who inked a seven-year, $182 million deal during spring training of 2022, the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history.

Not too far down the road, the Rockies are counting on a talented crop of prospects, led by infielder Adael Amador (expected big-league arrival 2025); right-handed starter Chase Dollander (first-round pick in 2023, ETA 2026); and power-hitting outfielders Jordan Beck (’24 or ’25), Yanquiel Fernandez (’25) and Zac Veen (’25).

Although Schmidt has long called the Rockies a “draft-and-develop” organization, he proved last summer that he’s not averse to making trades to collect prospects. Before last year’s deadline, Schmidt dealt veterans Mike Moustakas, C.J. Cron, Randal Grichuk, Brad Hand and Pierce Johnson to acquire several minor-league pitchers. Schmidt’s plan is to use quantity to find quality.

“We have acquired 37 pitchers in the last twenty-something months,” he said. “Somebody is going to surprise us in that group. We are going to develop a couple of them.”

Colorado has been reluctant to part with prospects in the past, but that’s likely to change given its surplus of talented position players, particularly outfielders.

“At some point in time, we’re going to have to make some decisions about some younger players,” Schmidt said. “And that’s a very good thing.”

The Rockies’ problem, as it has been throughout their history, is finding a way to open their talent windows simultaneously. That last happened in 2017-18, when the club had two quality starters in Freeland and Marquez, a solid bullpen, and a lineup that featured All-Stars Nolan Arenado, DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story.

Currently, however, the talent on the field, both at the major league level and in the minors, is higher than it is on the mound.

“In the next couple of years, the position players might be ahead of the pitchers because of what happened on the injury front and depending on how quickly some of these young pitchers transition into pro ball from the draft,” Black said. “That would be the key to timing all that up, but there is a window a year or two from now where it could, potentially, sync up pretty nicely.”

Culture club

While Black acknowledges the Rockies need more talent, he’s continued to insist that the vibes in the clubhouse are positive.

“I have a clear perspective on what’s going on, and in front of us,” said Black, who’s in the final year of his contract but is in preliminary talks about an extension through 2025. “From a coaching and managing standpoint, there’s a silver lining of what can be accomplished, even in a tough year like last year.

“But what I like about this group is that they always come to work, and there is a camaraderie you don’t see on a lot of (losing) teams. We always work hard, we never quit. I think that bodes well for our future.”

Despite all of the losses, second baseman Brendan Rodgers believes the right chemistry is brewing.

“I think you can see, in this clubhouse, how tight this team is,” Rodgers said. “And it’s not just the veterans like Chuck (Blackmon) or RyMac (third baseman Ryan McMahon) or Freeland or ‘Marquee’ (Marquez), but the young guys, too. I think we welcome everybody as teammates.”

The D-backs say that the club’s culture was a major reason they evolved from a 110-loss team to the World Series in three seasons. Manager Torey Lovullo is credited with setting the right tone — even-keeled most of the time and but fiery when he had to be.

After an Aug. 11 home loss to the Padres, Lovullo let loose.

“When I got here, we lost nine straight,” closer Paul Sewald, acquired at the trade deadline, told the “Foul Territory” podcast. “I was starting to contemplate, ‘What the heck happened during this trade?’ He was like, ‘I’m tired of us being the JV team of the NL West. You need to start stepping up and play the way you’re supposed to be playing.’

“It was a good message. (Torey) is very laid back, but he knows this is a pivotal time. ‘Our focus needs to be higher. We need to get it together.’”

Hazen gives Lovullo a lot of credit for steering the ship, even during the 110-loss season.

“We played hard, and that was one of Torey’s attributes,” Hazen said. “We always competed. I still think we went to the ballpark every day, feeling like we had a chance to win because of the way we played the game. We just needed to improve our execution and I needed to get us better players.”

Talent pool

And there’s the rub for the Rockies.

In a recent ESPN story, Colorado and Washington were the only teams without a player in ESPN’s top 100 major leaguers. On the plus side, the Rockies do have four prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 100: Amador (28), Hollander (52), Fernandez (72) and Beck (81).

Blackmon, who’s been around long enough to see the good, the bad and the truly ugly of Rockies baseball, chooses to believe that the road ahead leads to better days in LoDo.

“We have guys at a stage in their careers where they are making big jumps year to year,” Blackmon said, referring to Colorado’s youth movement. “Guys can take some big jumps, and that’s what you see every year on teams that make it to the playoffs.”

Schmidt, the former director of scouting who’s been with the Rockies since October 1999, practices and preaches positivity and patience. He wants Colorado’s competitive window to stay open longer than a season or two.

“You have to have a belief in the talent and the players you have coming up,” he said. “And I think that’s the fun thing — building something that we can sustain over time. It’s not just going to be short, and the foundation is going to be our young players.”

But that’s down the road. This season, the Rockies need to learn some hard lessons from their ugly 2023.

It’s what the D-backs did after their 110-loss disaster.

“We had to recommit ourselves to what we were going to hold ourselves accountable too, in regard to the play on the field,” Hazen said. “But in combination with that, we needed more talent. We probably were a 70-win team that won 52. I don’t think we were a 52-win team that won 52, I think we were a 70-plus win team that won 52.”

Last year, the Rockies sounded a similar refrain, even balking at the significance of a 100-loss season. But in the words of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”

Ultimately, the D-back recognized that. Now, it’s the Rockies’ turn to travel that road.

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