Todd Helton is undoubtedly the most prolific and accomplished player in the history of the Colorado Rockies. In 17 seasons, all spent in Colorado, the Tennessee native accrued 2,519 hits, 369 home runs, 1,406 RBIs, 1,335 walks, a 61.3 WAR, and a .316/.414/.539 (133 OPS+) career batting line. He was the face of the Rockies in the decade following Larry Walker's departure, and there's a reasonable possibility (if Walker falls short) that Helton could be the first player to don a Rockies' hat on their plaque in Cooperstown.
Helton retired a few months ago, and with him, left an entire era of Colorado Rockies history, a dismal one, which included just three playoff berths and one magical run to the Fall Classic in 2007 over the course of 20 years since the franchise's debut.
Without their franchise icon, the Rockies will be forced to meld a new path in the coming years. Fortunately, the future in Colorado doesn't look so bleak anymore. After missing the playoffs for the past five years, the Rockies have accumulated an impressive stockpile of young talent, to go along with an already star-studded core. All of a sudden, the Dodgers' expected reign over the NL West in the coming years may not be such a sure thing.
Since their inception in 1991, the Colorado Rockies have been known for one thing: home runs. Lots, and lots of home runs. While this has certainly been to the benefit of both the fans and the hitters playing there, Rockies' pitchers have suffered greatly.
Perhaps no team has a worse track record of developing starting pitching than the Rockies. In fact, Rockies' pitchers have totaled just five 5.0+ WAR seasons in the team's history, and only Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez have a career WAR with the Rockies higher than 15.0*. Just two players have pitched over 1,000 innings with the club (Cook and Jeff Francis), and only Chacin and Jimenez have career ERAs lower than 4.00. And as flawed as the wins stat is, Aaron freakin' Cook is the only pitcher to win at least 65 games, and he did that over 10 seasons with the team.
*With a career WAR of 14.0, Jhoulys Chacin should join that club sometime next season.
Luckily for Colorado, it appears that their "pitching curse" has begun to wear off over the past year. The 2013 Rockies had three pitchers start at least 20 games with a sub-3.50 ERA, something which hadn't been done in the entirety of the team's 20 year existence
Jhoulys Chacin has emerged as a well above-average starter, going 14-10 with a 3.47 ERA (127 ERA+), and 5.8 WAR in just over 197 innings last year. And it doesn't appear to be a fluke either, as other than his injury shortened 2012 season, Chacin has a career 126 ERA+ since he made his debut in 2009. And while he's locked up for just two more years, it would be hard to envision the club letting their first above-average, homegrown pitcher since Jimenez walk, especially if he can maintain his performance over the next couple years.
Acquired two winters ago in a trade with the Angels, Tyler Chatwood finally relinquished his homer-prone ways last year. in 20 starts, Chatwood put up a 3.15 ERA (140 ERA+) and 3.4 WAR. While it's highly unlikely that he will maintain his 2013 level of performance, as indicated by an unsustainable 0.4 HR/9 rate and startlingly low 1.61 SO/BB ratio, he has the potential to wind up as a mainstay in the middle of Colorado's rotation. He's also just 24-years-old and under team control for the next four years.
Though he's under contract for just one more year, Jorge De La Rosa was another bright spot for the Rockies in 2013, as he completed his first full, injury-free season since 2009. In 30 starts, De La Rosa went 16-6 with a 3.49 ERA and 4.3 WAR. Impressive numbers, especially in the pitchers wasteland that is Coors Field. Nearly 33, De La Rosa likely isn't a part of Colorado's long-term plans, but it's not inconceivable that he pitches well enough in 2014 to warrant a qualifying offer, which would aid the Rockies by way of draft pick compensation were he to depart.
One of the biggest moves the Rockies made this offseason was their trade of Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen to the Oakland Athletics for oft-injured left-hander Brett Anderson. Anderson, of course, was a once promising young arm who has seen very little playing time over the past four years, as he hasn't made more than 19 starts in a season since his rookie year in 2009. Still, when healthy, his talent is undeniable, as shown in his 3.56 career FIP and 9.27 SO/9. Anderson, who will be 26 in a couple weeks, is owed $8 million in 2014, while the Rockies also hold a $12 million club option on him for 2015. If Anderson can stay healthy, the Rockies may have found themselves yet another mid-rotation type starter.
Yet, the Rockies' big league pitching talent isn't even the most exciting part, as they have a duo of young right-handers that could wind up as number one or two starters in Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray. Both Butler and Gray have 80-grade fastballs with plus changeups and a plus-plus breaking ball. Butler could arrive sometime this summer, while Gray, the 3rd overall pick in last June's amateur draft, should arrive in Colorado by September. Butler and Gray are far from sure things, but they are two of the top pitching prospects in the minors, and represent the type of home-grown ace-caliber talent that the organization has constantly been devoid of.
As for the bullpen, it's extremely difficult to project what any team's bullpen will look like even a year from now. With Rex Brothers and Adam Ottavino, the club does has some exciting young options, though.
The Rockies have never really been lacking in the position player department, partly due to the effects of Coors Field, but also somewhat due to their comparatively strong record of drafting and developing position players.
The current lineup revolves around the fire-power of All-Stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, each of whom is locked up long-term, under the age of 30, and provides MVP-level production from an up the middle position. It's hard to imagine them not forming the core of the next great Rockies team.
Around Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, the organization has managed to find a number of solid, above-average position players to complement their two stars. Nolan Arenado was superb in his 2013 rookie campaign, especially on the field, where he saved an astounding 30 runs with his glove. And while he's clearly a work in progress offensively, the 22-year-old still managed to hit .267/.301/.405 last season, which, when combined with his glove work, allowed him to put up a 3.9 WAR. It's not unreasonable to expect further progress from his bat, as he was touted as a potential plus hitter coming up through the minors.
Wilin Rosario has been another revelation. The 24-year-old has four more years of club control remaining and has already emerged as one of the premiere offensive catchers in baseball. Over the past two years, Rosario has combined to hit .282/.314/.507 (107 OPS+) with 49 total home runs. Considering how hard it can be to find capable starting catchers, having an above-average backstop in place gives the club an immediate advantage.
The Rockies have also done a decent job in recent years of surrounding their young core with offensive-minded veterans. For example, Michael Cuddyer has been a huge free agent signing success for the team, winning the NL batting title last year, while posting a career-high 140 wRC+. Nearly 35 and under contract for just one more year, it's hard to imagine him being a part of the team's long-term plans, but he does represent some success in their ability to find supporting talent. Justin Morneau could fill Cuddyer's shoes if he departs after 2014, as the club recently locked him up for two years (with a mutual option for 2016).
It should also be noted that as good as this group looks, it could have been even better if the Rockies hadn't sent outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros last month.
On the farm, the Rockies lack the same high-end prospects they have on the pitching side, but they do have a good amount of depth among position players.
Shortstop Trevor Story struggled last year, but he still has first-division upside. Outfielder Kyle Parker has plus raw power and could soon be an average regular. Tom Murphy represents a very strong catching option, who should compete with Rosario for the starting job in a couple years. 2013 second rounder Ryan McMahon is a ways away, but he has a very high upside as someone who could wind up with both plus-hit and power tools. David Dahl is also a couple years away, but he was a top 10 draft pick less than two years ago, and has enormous, All-Star caliber upside. The team also has Dominican outfielder Raimel Tapia coming up through the system. Though he too is likely a few years from making an impact, Tapia has the highest upside in the system as a potential perennial All-Star.
So, from what we just gathered, here's what the Rockies' starting lineup and rotation* could look like a few years from now:
*I'm not going to bother projecting the bullpen or bench as both areas generally go through a high amount of turnover, and it would be a complete shot in the dark to try and predict them.
C: Tom Murphy
1B: Wilin Rosario
2B: Rosell Herrera/ Trevor Story
SS: Troy Tulowitzki
3B: Nolan Arenado
LF: Carlos Gonzalez
CF: David Dahl
RF: Raimel Tapia
SP: Jonathan Gray
SP: Eddie Butler
SP: Jhoulys Chacin
SP: Brett Anderson
SP: Tyler Chatwood
Obviously a lot could (and will) change between now and then, and most players won't reach their upside, but on paper, that projected roster looks pretty damn good. And that's not even including names like Kyle Parker, Tyler Anderson, Chad Bettis, Jordan Lyles, Charlie Blackmon, and Will Swanner, who each have solid potential. It also helps that they should have fairly high draft picks in each of the next two drafts.
Financially, the Rockies have never been one to spend lavishly, having never surpassed more than $85 million in total payroll. Fortunately, the club is in a prime financial position right now, with just three players guaranteed contracts past 2015 (Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, and Boone Logan). A lot of their younger core such as Arenado, Rosario, Chatwood, Brothers, and of course, their prospects, are still pre-arbitration eligible, while Anderson and Chacin are the only two players with less than three years of club control remaining that profile as potential long-term solutions. So, theoretically, the Rockies should be able to be major players on the free agent market over the next few offseasons, which could provide an even further influx of talent.
With the current state of NL West contenders rather desolate outside of the Dodgers, the Rockies could be in a prime position to compete in a few years. The Padres seem to be on the right track, but health and performance setbacks have made their future significantly murkier. The Diamondbacks have a decent core in place, as well as some high-end prospects (see Bradley, Archie), but they still look like more of an 85-win team than a true contender, and by the time the Rockies should be serious contenders, several members of Arizona's core will have reached their mid-30's. The Giants, World Series champs just over a year ago, certainly could contend this year, but aside from Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and Brandon Belt, a majority of their team is either well into their 30's (or soon to be) or an impending free agent (Pablo Sandoval). And even the Dodgers, have some question marks regarding their future. Though money will never be an obstacle, and they have the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers current nub comprises of 32-year-old Carl Crawford, 30-year-old Zack Greinke, 31-year-old Andre Ethier, 31-year-old Adrian Gonzalez, a soon to be free agent Hanley Ramirez, and a recently lackluster Matt Kemp. It's not like the Rockies are facing a juggernaut team like the Rangers, Cardinals, or Red Sox.
This is all just speculation and pure projection on my part, but there's little doubt that the Rockies have a solid, young nucleus in place that could guide them to competitiveness in the near future.