The Rockies have had talent, but it’s never all come together
Most Denver-natives will tell you that the Mile High City is a hockey town with the gridiron eras of John Elway and Peyton Manning. Other Denver-natives will tell you they are a hockey town that allowed the legendary wrist shot of Joe Sakic to blossom while Patrick Roy played between the pipes in his older days. On the other end of the spectrum, fans would likely express disappointment for the Rockies and the Nuggets. The Nuggets were the home of Carmelo Anthony, Nene, and J.R. Smith for much of their careers but the NBA was more competitive, especially in the Western Conference.
However, the Colorado Rockies being the NL West worked to their advantage until recently when the division welcomed Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager to the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey to the Giants, and Paul Goldschmidt to the Diamondbacks. In 2002, the Rockies were on the advantage as the Diamondbacks were now defending their first World Series title and Tony Gwynn had retired from the Padres. These days, when you see baseball’s finest journalists like Ken Rosenthal and Tim Kurkjian discussing the Rockies, they are usually only talking about how Coors Field brings a lot of scoring due to the favorable one-of-a-kind conditions at 5,000 feet above sea level.
In 1998, the Rockies drafted Matt Holliday who would finally move out of Single-A ball and make the transition to AA in 2002. In 2001, Ubaldo Jimenez, who would become the future ace of the Rockies, was signed as an amateur international free agent. In 2004, the Canadian starting pitcher Jeff Francis was drafted by the Rockies. The following year, the Rockies drafted arguably the league’s top shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki.
With all these players flowing into Coors Field, if they could just bring in some good role players, that should have been the key to bringing the first ring to the Mile-High City. However, the story seemed to be losing their elite players to better clubs one year at a time after the dominance of the players.
In 2004, Matt Holliday and Jeff Francis were called up to the majors; Francis became a staple in Rockies rotation the following season when he started 33 games and went 14-12. In 2006, Troy Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez also left the farm system for the majors. Then in the Rockies’ 2006 MLB Season, Matt Holliday broke out with 34 HRs, 114 RBIs, and a .326 average.
In 2007, Troy Tulowitzki made his statement and the Rockies made the postseason after winning a tiebreaker game. Matt Holliday was a phenom in the National League, finishing in 2nd place for the NL MVP Award to Jimmy Rollins. It was likely the 2nd-best non-MVP winning performance to me behind Matt Kemp in 2011. Holliday’s 2007 season included a .340 average, 36 homers, and a league-best 50 doubles and 137 RBIs. Tulowitzki batted .291 with 24 HRs and 99 RBIs. Ubaldo Jimenez pitched his first major league win and only started in 15 games, one of which he gave up Barry Bonds‘ final home run. Despite not being the best in most statistical categories, Jeff Francis started 34 games and went 17-9, earning himself a 9th-place finish for the Cy Young Award. In the postseason, Francis became the first Canadian starting pitcher to win an MLB postseason game. The Rockies would win the NL Pennant and Matt Holliday was named the NLCS MVP.
The next year, it seemed like the Rockies couldn’t make any more progress. Matt Holliday would continue his dominance in fewer games than his previous seasons but now adding speed and base stealing to his game and dropping in batting stats. He would finish the season with a stealing percentage over 90 with 28 steals in 30 attempts. Tulo suffered a devastating injury, benching him for 61 games of the season. Jeff Francis played in 24 starts and went 4-10. Ubaldo Jimenez was a .500 pitcher at 12-12.
In 2009, things changed even more. Matt Holliday was traded to Oakland in exchange for Carlos Gonzalez, who became the Rockies franchise player with Tulowitzki. Holliday would soon be traded again to St. Louis where he would call home until the end of 2016. Tulo made a comeback during the season finishing 5th place in the NL MVP race. Seth Smith became the Rockies rock behind the plate. Dexter Fowler had been called up the previous year for a few games but became a staple in the outfield in 2009. Fowler tied the MLB record for a rookie with 5 stolen bases in a game against the Padres. Surprisingly, the team made a manager change towards the end of the season and were able to make the Wild Card with Jim Tracy leading them to 20 wins in the last 25 games. However, the Rockies would lose to the Phillies and begin the playoff drought that continues today.
If we take a gander through the next few seasons, Carlos Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Troy Tulowtizki were the only players the team had to offer with a few others like Chris Iannetta and Corey Dickerson becoming breakthroughs that took their talents elsewhere. In the 2010, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez brought their skills to the table. Jimenez pitched a no-hitter once during the season and would be a Cy Young candidate. CarGo would hit 34 HRs, 117 RBIs, and steal 26 bases in a 3rd-place MVP finish that included completing the cycle with a walk-off home run in a game against the Cubs.
In 2011, Ubaldo Jimenez would play his last games before being traded to Cleveland mid-season. Charlie Blackmon would be a newcomer who would soon blossom in a few years and Nolan Arenado, who had been drafted in 2009, would make his major league debut in 2013. Jeff Francis would return in 2012 for 2 seasons after spending a season with the Royals.
In my mind, 2015 would likely be the last time the Rockies would have a chance at success for a while. Charlie Blackmon continued his breakout with 43 stolen bases and a .287 average. Nolan Arenado hit 42 homers and a league-best 130 RBIs and would take home his 3rd straight Gold Glove Award. However, Tulowitzki would be traded away mid-season to the Blue Jays after nearly 10 seasons in a Rockies uniform. It was a trade of mixed feelings for Tulo, and the team would replace him with Jose Reyes from the Blue Jays, who was later suspended in 2016 for a domestic violence incident.
With CarGo getting older and Tulo likely not to return after the trade aftermath, the fate of Colorado rests in the work of Charlie Blackmon. I would not predict that Arenado will agree to any extension with the Rockies with free agency in his mind unless the Rockies are seen to have a good farm system. As the best third basemen in baseball, I would say the Yankees would get him to replace Alex Rodriguez and/or Derek Jeter now that both have retired. And with pitching becoming more and more decisive in the result of a team, it’s clear the Rockies have no depth in their pitching as they don’t even have a pitcher who anyone would call an ace.