When the Rockies surged to the World Series in 2007, they astonished the baseball world, defying all expectation along the way. But there may have been no bigger gulf between pre-season expectations and the outcome following the final game of the season than the team and its fans suffered through in 2019. Sure, they finished on a high note, sweeping the playoff-bound Brewers and knocking them out of a potential division title as a satisfying act of vengeance for Milwaukee beating the Rockies in the National League Division Series last season, and climbing out of the cellar with a 13-inning season finale.
But after making the postseason two years in a row, playing September spoiler was hardly the fate the players predicted when they lined up for the anthem on Opening Day.
“The difference between what we thought we were going to do and what we ended up doing was a big gap this year,” said four-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon. “That’s disappointing.”
Hopes of their first division title and a return to Rocktober were dashed long before the books were closed for 2019, with the Rockies (71-91) 20 games under .500 and 35 games behind the pace-setting Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I’m the most frustrated person in the world,” Rockies owner Dick Monfort said Tuesday in a end-of-season press conference with general manager Jeff Bridich and manager Bud Black. “This year was very tough. It was without a doubt the hardest year I’ve been through.”
BUT NOLAN AIN’T ONE
Nearly 3 million fans felt Monfort’s pain as they filled the ballpark to watch talented and exciting cellar-dwelling players filling nightly highlight reels, while failing to click as a winning team this season.
“If I’m a fan, I want to win, and I want to see a winner, so I can see why they’re upset,” six-time Gold Glove-winner and five-time All-Star Nolan Arenado (.315, 41 homers, 118 RBIs) told The Watch during the final homestand.
“Those guys are all good, and we’re still in last place,” Arenado added, referring to fellow All-Stars Trevor Story (.294, 35, 85), David Dahl (.302, 15, 61) and Blackmon (.314, 32, 86). “There’s a lot of positives. But I don’t know how we’re going to win. That’s one thing I don’t know.”
Monfort’s go-to response is to preach “patience,” telling The Watch that the team’s expectations haven’t changed since six years ago, when he said it was reasonable to expect the team to be in the postseason once every five or six years.
“When you have a couple of years when you make the playoffs, you sort of get hungry,” Monfort said. “So, yeah, we want to win every year. But our expectations are the same. Our expectations are that whatever issues we have, whether they can right themselves, which some of them will, or whether we need to go in and try to fix something, we need to do that and we’ll put all our efforts and all the money that we possibly can to doing that.”
Monfort added his own asterisk to that sentiment when he emphasized that new revenue from a recently announced cable broadcast contract extension won’t be available until 2021.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any huge splashes,” Monfort said, signaling a quiet offseason. “We’ve pretty much spent what we have through 2020.”
A big chunk of the money already spent was the $260 million eight-year contract the Rockies inked with Arenado during spring training. The contract includes an opt-out for Arenado after the 2021 season.
“They signed me to win,” Arenado said. “It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to sign me to that money and not try to win, so they’re going to try to win. I mean, I hope they do. We got to take some huge steps.”
Bridich and Monfort both emphasized that his opt-out clause doesn’t have the Rockies panicking about the now-two-year countdown to convince Arenado he can win in purple pinstripes.
“If there’s a list of issues we need to deal with, that’s like number 775 on the page,” Monfort said. “There are other people and bigger issues at this time. I don’t think anyone is losing sleep about Nolan opting out or staying in at this point and time.”
The idea that the Rockies can reverse their fortunes without taking “huge steps” has plenty of takers from the current crop of big leaguers.
“We’re basically the same team we had the past couple of years when we made the playoffs,” Blackmon said. “We just had a lot of people that we were really counting on getting hurt. I don’t think anybody had all five of their opening pitching rotation out at the same time. That’s tough to replace.”
Gone missing was the Kyle Freeland of 2017 and 2018 — the fourth-place finisher in the Cy Young voting last season with a 17-7 record and a 2.85 ERA who fell to 3-11 with a 6.73 ERA this season, logging roughly half the 202 1/3 innings he posted a year ago. After a demotion to the minors and a promising return cut short by injury, he was able to get back on the mound for a pair of September starts in which he posted a 1.80 ERA.
“I definitely took steps forward,” Freeland said. “The fact that I was able to finish the season healthy and active and pitching in a couple games definitely helps with my confidence going into the offseason.”
Fellow starting pitcher Jon Gray bounced back from a rough 2018 to record his fourth consecutive season with double digit wins, going 11-8 with a 3.84 ERA in 150 innings.
“There’s still another level, and there’s higher expectations I have for myself,” Gray told The Watch last week as he stood on crutches, his broken ankle in a cast. “Until I see that, I won’t really be satisfied. But I am happy with struggling and kicking it to the side and saying, ‘Screw that, I’ve got my team, I need to be there for them.’”
Bridich noted the need for a boost in a clubhouse that suffered from the offseason departures of DJ LeMahieu, Gerardo Parra, and especially Carlos Gonzalez, the most vocal leader in the clubhouse.
“We’ve had down years before, and we’ve bounced back,” Bridich said. “A lot of our bounce back will be determined by just how strong the players want our clubhouse to be. I do think there’s work to be done there. That actually takes work. And some focus. And some attention. It’s not just going to happen.”
Injuries to all five starting pitchers and as many starting position players meant mass minor league promotions, but by the end of September, the patchwork prospects paced the Rockies to taking two of three from the NL Central Division-winning St. Louis Cardinals, a home sweep of the San Diego Padres and a season-ending sweep of the Brewers, who lost to the Washington Nationals, 4-3, in the NL Wild Card Game Tuesday night.
“In a tough year, I think the togetherness of the group has been apparent,” Black said before the Rockies walked off the final game of the season in 13 innings. “The steadfastness of the group in trying times and adversity was pretty good. Guys hung in there together. Guys supported each other. Guys were good teammates.”
It’s no consolation, but it’s the prize the Rockies and their fans have settled for in 19 of their 27 seasons.
“These games matter, so we’re coming out here trying to play, trying to win every night. It’s been nice to play well lately. Hopefully, we can keep that going into next year. Cucarachas never die,” Story summed up, invoking the team’s new spirit insect. “We fought to the end.”