Just four years ago, the Colorado Rockies were at the very bottom of the NL West standings. Struggling to find good pitching and hampered by aging veterans, the Rockies jettisoned franchise icon Troy Tulowitzki in the hopes of garnering a new sense of direction.
Colorado has improved in every year since 2015, culminating in a 91-win season in 2018 and the franchise's first playoff berth since 2009.
The Monfort brothers made a strong statement about the club's future by signing superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million extension while also extending manager Bud Black (178-147 record in tow years as manager) for another three seasons.
Now, the Rockies will look to take the next step in unseating the Los Angeles Dodgers as NL West champs for the first time in six years.
Here are three reasons why the Colorado Rockies will win the NL West in 2019:
1. Left side! (Strong side)
In Arenado and Trevor Story, the Rockies may possess the best 3B-SS combo in baseball. Arenado finished third in MVP voting and has led the National League in homers in three of the last four seasons while winning six consecutive Gold Gloves at the hot corner.
For all of Arenado's brilliance as arguably the best player in the National League, it is easy to forget about Story. Yet, Story was a top-20 player in terms of fWAR in 2018 and clubbed 37 homers of his own to go along with 27 stolen bases. And at 26 years old, Story has yet to even reach his “baseball prime.”
Any time you have multiple MVP-caliber players on your team, you stand a fantastic chance at winning some baseball games. On top of that, there is a chance that the best is still yet to come for both Arenado and Story, which is a truly terrifying proposition for opponents.
Story must cut down on his strikeouts and remain healthy, but there is serious potential for both guys to be top five players in the National League this season.
2. Young starters improving quickly
At just 24 years old, Kyle Freeland finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, taking a massive leap forward in just his second full season in the bigs.
Not only did Freeland top 200 innings, but he also increased his strikeout rate and simultaneously lowered his walk rate. Freeland was also one of the best pitchers at Coors Field, posting a 2.40 ERA in 15 starts at home.
German Marquez was equally impressive, increasing his K/9 from 8.2 in 2017 to 10.6 in 2018 and pitching to an 8-5 record with a 2.95 ERA in 17 road starts. For good measure, Marquez actually had a lower FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) than Freeland.
The top two will anchor the rotation once again this year, but fellow starters Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray are also under 30 years old. Anderson (29) gave up a league-high 30 homers last season and has been a bit of a disappointment since a breakout 2016 season. Gray (27) was tremendous in 2017 but struggled in 2018.
Anderson's fly ball and hard contact rates have skyrocketed, and given that he is more of a finesse pitcher he will need to work out his command.
But the peripherals look more favorably on Gray because of his velocity and ground ball percentage remaining mostly similar to 2017. In fact, Gray posted nearly the same fWAR despite his ERA increasing by over a run.
The starting rotation in Colorado may not stack up to that of the Dodgers, but the top arms are still very young and each starter could see improvements this season.
3. Bullpen due for improvement
Despite the loss of shutdown reliever Adam Ottavino in free agency, Colorado's bullpen should improve substantially in 2019.
Closer Wade Davis and setup man Bryan Shaw each posted by far the worst seasons of their respective careers, but 2018 was also their first full season pitching at Coors. In fact–although he saw somewhat limited usage in the second half–Shaw posted a 3.12 ERA after the All-Star break. Likewise, Chris Rusin went from being one of the best in baseball in 2017 to one of the very worst this past year.
Relief pitchers are arguably the most volatile players in terms of year-over-year productivity and consistency. Davis, Shaw, and Rusin–along with Mike Dunn and Jake McGee–should all improve, which immediately makes the Rockies a much better ball club.
The team also acquired Seunghwan Oh last season, and he might be the perfect kind of power pitcher to fill the void left by Ottavino, who was pretty unremarkable in August and September anyway. Scott Oberg is likely to take on a larger role as well.
A better bullpen would also put far less pressure on the young starting rotation, which could be a boon for their overall growth and progression.
This unit could have one of the best turnarounds in baseball this year, helping the Rockies to their first division title in franchise history.
4. Time for new blood
The argument could certainly be made that the Dodgers remain the safest bet to win the division. After all, they have the same nucleus of players and could land Bryce Harper before the season begins.
But the Rockies have made significant improvements in each season under Bud Black, and with Arenado locked up and hungry to win his first MVP, this could be the year that the Rockies capture the throne.
There is also said to be something for the relative complacency in L.A. as well as their durability issues in recent years. Meanwhile, the young core in Colorado is consistently healthy, and now they have experienced their first taste of playoff baseball.
All of this could be the perfect storm for the Rockies to take the NL West in 2019.