By Manny Randhawa
DENVER -- The Rockies entered this offseason with two main priorities, perhaps three: fortifying the bullpen, adding a catcher and adding a bat at first base or a corner outfield spot.
What general manager Jeff Bridich has done in terms of the first priority has surpassed what many expected. In fact, with Friday's signing of three-time All-Star Wade Davis to be the club's closer, Colorado has its best bullpen entering a season in its 25-year history.
The Rockies have assembled a "super 'pen" to pitch in the thin mountain air of Denver and within the cavernous dimensions of Coors Field. If that weren't intriguing enough, Colorado may have vaulted itself into a position to compete for a division title after winning a National League Wild Card spot in 2017.
Bullpenning has become a mainstream method in October, but getting to the postseason takes more than a solid relief corps. Some may argue the gap between the defending NL champion Dodgers -- who have also won the NL West five years in a row -- and the Rockies remains too large to be bridged in one season. But consider:
The 'Pen is mightier
The Rockies had a top-10 bullpen in 2017, with the relief corps posting an 88 ERA- (park-adjusted ERA), per Fangraphs. The clubs with the top five? The Indians, Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and D-backs, all of whom won more than 90 games.
Colorado has undoubtedly upgraded its bullpen with the additions of Davis and Bryan Shaw. Shaw has been the most durable reliever in the Majors over the past four seasons, appearing in 74 or more games each year since 2014. Last season he used his cutter to post his highest ground-ball rate (55.9 percent) since 2012. And in a season during which a new record was set for home runs across MLB, Shaw's home run-per-fly-ball rate was down more than 6 percent from 2016 (from 16.7 percent to 10.6 percent).
Shaw also has extensive postseason experience, making 12 appearances for the Indians over the past two years, helping the Tribe win the American League pennant in 2016.
Davis actually trended in the wrong direction when it comes to home runs in 2017: He surrendered six of them after giving up three in 182 2/3 innings combined from 2014-16 with the Royals. That's not a trend the Rockies want to see continue, particularly at Coors Field.
Nevertheless, no reliever has posted a lower ERA than Davis' 1.43 since 2014. Among big-game relievers, there aren't many that can match the experience Davis has. He posted a 0.36 ERA during the 2015 postseason for Kansas City, closing out the Royals' World Series-clinching Game 5. In total, he's made 28 playoff appearances, with a 1.40 ERA.
Adding Davis and Shaw to a bullpen that includes Jake McGee, whom the Rockies re-signed this offseason, Mike Dunn, Scott Oberg and Chris Rusin makes for one of the deepest relief corps in the Majors. Rusin, in particular, had a breakout season as Colorado's long reliever in 2017, with a 2.65 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 60 appearances.
With Arenado ascending, healthy offense could thrive
The Rockies' calling card has historically been offense. Last season, the lineup didn't live up to its potential. Part of that was subpar performance: DJ LeMahieu regressed offensively following a breakout season in 2016, seeing his park-adjusted OPS fall from 128 to 94. Trevor Story's OPS dropped 144 points over that span, though his career sample size is admittedly small.
Injuries played a significant role as well. Ian Desmond, whom Colorado signed to play first base, spent three stints on the disabled list and never was able to get on track at the plate. Gerardo Parra, who was enjoying a resurgence after a disappointing 2016 campaign, missed a month with a strained quad in June. He had been slashing .318/.348/.480 at the time of the injury, and the month he was sidelined coincided with a 12-15 Rockies record.
The Rockies addressed the catcher position by signing veteran Chris Iannetta, who was drafted by Colorado and played for the club from 2006-11. He had a solid season at the plate in 2017 for the D-backs, slugging .511 with 17 home runs in 89 games. Though he's entering his age-35 season, if he even approximates that type of production next season it could provide a big lift near the bottom of the lineup, an Achilles' heel for the offense in 2017.
While Colorado still has a hole to plug at first base or in the outfield, the rest of the projected lineup, anchored by two NL MVP Award candidates from last season in Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, looks formidable.
Recently selected for his fifth Gold Glove Award in five seasons and having finished fourth in NL MVP Award voting, the 26-year-old Arenado's trajectory continues to point upward. That trend could lift the Rockies in a big way in 2018, particularly since 2017 was his best season at the plate, and came as he utilized his home ballpark like never before.
Arenado's park-adjusted OPS was a career-high 132 last season, and he put together his best campaign away from Coors Field, posting an .886 OPS with 18 of his 37 homers coming on the road. His continued rise and an addition of a power-hitting first baseman or outfielder could put the Rockies in position to pose a serious threat to the Dodgers' hegemony atop the NL West over the past half-decade.
The Wild Card is so 2017
The Rockies made the playoffs for the first time in eight years with a Wild Card berth last season. But the way the organization has stacked its bullpen, and the amount of money it's committed to it -- the Davis deal is for three years and $52 million, and both Shaw and McGee signed for three years and $27 million -- it appears it's going all in for a deep postseason run in 2018.
Beyond that, there are big financial decisions on the horizon, particularly regarding an extension for Arenado. That makes the recent moves even more indicative of a "win-now" mantra.
Will the Rockies strike again?
"We're certainly still keenly watching the market," Bridich said on Friday. "It's been an interesting one to this point. There are a lot of players that are still unsigned."
Earlier this month, Bridich gave a bit of a prelude to what transpired with Friday's signing of Davis, and potentially more moves to come before the offseason gives way to Opening Day.
"Hopefully there are some more men that we can add to this clubhouse and this roster that will share in that goal," he said, "of not only getting back to the playoffs, but making a push to the World Series."
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Manny Randhawa is a reporter and member of the Statcast™ research team at MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MannyOnMLB.