DENVER — This, right here, is a pretty decent example of where the Colorado Rockies stand compared to any other time in the team’s quarter-century history: it’s Opening Day and we’re talking about a pitcher.
“I can only control what happens in the future,” No. 1 starter Jon Gray told reporters before he opens a welcome new season at Arizona on Thursday.
The Rockies are 25, Gray is 26, and it should brighten the day of local baseball fans that both are starting to figure out what they're going to do with the rest of their lives. Gentrifying the Rockies into baseball's elite must continue with one eye on the now, one on the future and a cold shoulder toward the past. Nothing good will come from focusing on the latter, in large part because there wasn’t a ton of good in the latter.
There’s a long list of things to appreciate about this new era of Rockies baseball, and most endearing is how they’ve teed up the old notion that you can’t pitch at altitude and told Nolan Arenado to have a swing.
The Rox also are operating (that's baseball-ese for "spending") like they expect to reach the postseason for a second straight year, even if that’s never happened before. After three previous trips to the playoffs, they never doubled down — not in 1996, when 83-79 didn’t make the cut; or 2008, when 74-88 prolonged the wait; or 2010, when Carlos Gonzalez hit leadoff and the tally was 83-79. Fresh off a Wild Card loss to these same D-Backs, a game that seems like it happened last week — seriously, it seems like last week — the Rox are out to change what’s supposed to happen. They're supposed to revert to the old Rox. They're supposed to lose.
In terms of perception, this feels like a big year for the Rockies franchise.
In professional sports you can tell which teams are in it to win it based on the size of their receipts. Well, the Rox just spent over $100 million on relief pitching. That's a stack of clams that says their time is now.
Whether it plays out this way, the Rockies have never been set up for sustained success like they are right now. Problem is, you can say something similar about most of the National League West, which must own one of those black AmEx cards that folks talk about but no one's ever seen. The Giants’ payroll is projected to exceed $207 million (second in all of baseball), the Dodgers’ $186 million (third), per Spotrac.com. The Diamondbacks’ $131 million (17th) and Padres’ $94 million (25th) are further down the list.
The Rockies? They’re on the hook for $143 million (14th), right around middle of the pack, right around where a mid-market team with playoff hopes should be. It feels important to say that’s also $60 million more than they spent just five years ago, when the Rox rolled out the 22nd-highest payroll and stumbled through a 74-88 slog. Yes, the two are connected.
What I'm saying is Gray was spot on: the past is a poor gauge for these Rox. They’re nothing like the old ones. But as always the proof will be in the standings.
This baseball year starts just like the last one ended, with Gray on the mound at Chase Field. The proud Oklahoman is a supremely confident 20-something. (Not many guys can pull off the flowing, blonde locks look.) He believes in himself, and his stuff, and those are good places to start. He also believes his Wild Card clunker against the Diamondbacks was simply an aberration: three hits and three runs in the first inning, a dugout seat before the third. “It's a good chance for redemption,” Gray said.
Gray’s health and stamina should be valued alongside his ERA and WAR. Manager Bud Black hopes to secure 33-34 starts from Gray, who’s taken the mound 49 times over two seasons. His developing curveball is a "great neutralizer," as Black put it, and the Rockies need Gray to be a true ace.
"I'm ready to see what we can do," Gray said.
If I were going off Rockies history, the question marks at first base and among the power bats in the lineup suggest 78-80 wins this season. (The Vegas number for the Rockies is 82 wins.) But this is the new Rox, and quality pitching suddenly must be a heavy consideration. So I’ll go 88 wins — one more than last year — with a Wild Card showdown against these same Arizona Diamondbacks. Again. And Jon Gray on the mound. Again.
Given their own, it's a rare time when the Rockies wouldn't mind repeating history. But they're 25 now, plenty old enough to make their own way.