Before this season began, who did you have as the team with the most wins in the National League West through the first week of May?
Personally, I liked the Los Angeles Dodgers. Elite pitching at the top of the rotation, four guys capable of All-Star seasons penciled into the everyday lineup (Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez), a very solid back of the rotation and a bullpen full of talented arms. The team better be good, given what the front office paid to put it together. Other people liked the San Francisco Giants, arguing that their rotation was too talented and that the Giants had too good a track record developing and maintaining pitching for them to be as bad as they were last year for a second straight season. Still others picked the Arizona Diamondbacks, for reasons that remain unclear to me (though in fairness, I was down enough on the Giants that I did think the Diamondbacks would wind up in a distant second). Some liked what they saw out of the Padres' young core last year so much that they thought this would be the season that Kevin Towers' roster came together, led by Andrew Cashner and Jedd Gyorko.
Not on that list: the Colorado Rockies. Few people outside Colorado thought the Rockies would make a substantial amount of noise this year, in part due to their offseason. The 2013 squad did some things very well -- pitching and infield defense, for example -- but still had major holes to address. The biggest move Colorado made, however, was to send their young and talented center fielder from the previous few years, Dexter Fowler, to the Houston Astros in return for Brandon Barnes, a 28-year-old outfielder who posted a .612 OPS in his first two seasons in the majors, and Jordan Lyles, a 23-year-old starting pitcher with a 5.35 ERA in his first 377 major league innings pitched.
The Rockies correctly believed that Fowler is a far more valuable player hitting at Coors half of the time than he is calling another park home -- an .875 career home OPS against .687 on the road -- but he's still a plus defender and neither Barnes nor Lyle had shown much of anything but unfulfilled promise at the highest level of competition. Other than that, the biggest moves the Rockies made this offseason were to sign veteran free agent 1B Justin Morneau and catcher Mike McKenry -- both most recently of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where both were role players at best -- and to sign LaTroy Hawkins to close, something he hasn't done on a regular basis in about a decade (though he moonlighted in the role a bit last season with the New York Mets).
So it's a testament to how well the season has started that even though the Fowler trade has been a wild success so far for the Rockies -- Barnes has hit the cover off the ball so far (.873 OPS through 81 PA), and Lyles has been pitching out of his mind (2.62 ERA in 44.2 IP, 24K to 10BB) -- both of them are just opening acts for the team's real main attractions: Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and the current God-King of Major League Baseball, Troy Tulowitzki.
Arenado is toting a 27-game hitting streak coming into Thursday's game against the Texas Rangers, the last of a four-game series in Arlington that has seen the Rangers -- one of the stronger teams in the American League -- outscored 29-5 so far in their own house. This is not something Arenado is generally expected to be doing. He was something of a poor man's version of Orioles 3B Manny Machado last season, hitting a lot of doubles but adding most of his value in the field. Machado was far better at the plate than Arenado, but that's because he was a flat-out better young player with more upside than Arenado. This year, however, Machado's still struggling to get back to the same form he had before his September knee injury, while Arenado is hitting .324/.346/.535 through 153 PA. Does he have a big home/away split? Sure. Does him having a .936 OPS at Coors make it any less impressive or valuable that he's got an .827 OPS away from it? Not at all.
Arenado isn't going to keep hitting .357 on the road -- he's not going hit .357 anywhere, because you can count the number of guys in baseball who have recently sustained even a .340 batting average over the course of a single season on one hand missing four fingers -- but he doesn't need to. If Arenado actually turns into the guy Orioles fans were hoping Machado would be -- an elite defender at third base with a bat that hits for average while steadily building power as he ages into his late twenties -- then he hasn't hit his ceiling, he's blown straight through it. And here's the scary thing: that theoretical Arenado might only be the third-best position player on this team.
Now, Barnes has played some center field in his career, and was in the mix for the job in Colorado this spring training, but so far he's been patrolling the corners for the Rockies. That's because Charlie Blackmon chose 2014 as the year he wanted to make his presence felt. Blackmon was an intriguing but risky prospect from the time the Rockies drafted him -- a former pitcher, he converted to the outfield well into his college career and just before Colorado drafted him. He always had the tools to be a good center fielder in the majors, but the question was whether they'd come together in time -- or at all.
So far, Blackmon's making a good argument that they have: .359/.396/.602 in 141 PA with good defense in center. Again, he won't keep hitting near .360, though he certainly has the natural skills required to maintain a .300-.310 average at this level, and he's got even more extreme home/away splits than Fowler did -- but that only becomes a major issue if he's not playing half his games at Coors Field, and that's not a problem the Rockies are likely to have any time soon. The biggest current concern with Blackmon's game in a vacuum is that he needs a platoon partner against tough righties -- and that's where the Rockies go to Corey Dickerson, another young outfielder having exceptional success so far this year in limited action (.348/.373/.587 in 51 PA, .854 career OPS vRHP).
There are three guys in the majors right now who I think have even an outside shot of hitting over .350 for an entire season in the current offensive climate (putting Melky Cabrera aside for the time being). One of them is Miguel Cabrera, who has broken .340 twice in the past three seasons and came within two points of .350 last year. The second is Mike Trout, because he's Mike Trout and I'm not willing to rule out his hit tool suddenly surging one year, especially as he develops further into his prime. The third guy's presence on this list is provisional: 2014 Troy Tulowitzki. Pre-2014 Tulo had no problem hitting for average, but he wasn't an elite contact guy -- even with his hot start this season, his career BA is .299, with his hit tool helping translate his great plate discipline and phenomenal power into elite production from short. It's worth noting that Tulo's career slugging away from Coors Field, .472, is higher than the overall slugging of any shortstop with more than 1,000 PA over that time period (2006-2014) save one: Hanley Ramirez (.504).
This year's version of Tulo is a different creature. His away OPS so far this year -- .865 in 74 PA -- is higher than that of any other shortstop with more than 60 PAs this year by almost 40 points (Alexei Ramirez, .826 OPS, 146 PA). His overall OPS -- 1.286 in 139 PA -- is flat-out the best in baseball among qualified hitters (catcher Devin Mesoraco of the Cincinnati Reds, currently on the disabled list, is the only guy within 200 points of that with even 50 PA). This year's version of Tulo is not only hitting .414, he's doing it with authority (27.0 percent of his balls in play are line drives, compared to 19.2 percent for his career) and while his batting average on balls in play is a ludicrous .407, it's impossible to argue that it's a lucky .407. An unsustainable .407? Absolutely. But not lucky, not when the ball's leaving the bat that hard.
On the other side of the ball? Well, Tulowitzki's always been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and he's certainly outdoing himself so far this year. If defensive value metrics are more your style, consider this: Andrelton Simmons posted the best dWAR in history by a shortstop last year; his 5.4 was better than any other single season that had come before, beating out Ozzie Smith's 4.7 in 1989 with ease. At the moment, if Tulowitzki plays the same number of games Simmons did last year -- 157 -- he's on pace to finish with a dWAR of 5.7.
At this point, I'm willing to consider that 2014 Tulowitzki can do just about anything. I don't think it's likely he'll keep hitting over .350, but if I had to pick someone to do it this year, I'd pick him. Elite players have crazy do-no-wrong seasons like that sometimes, and Tulowitzki is an elite player. There's one problem though, and it lies in that stat about Simmons -- not the 5.4 dWAR, mind you, but the 157 games. Tulowitzki has never played 157 games in a major league season in his career. He's only gotten over 150 games once, and over 140 games twice. He spent most of last year on the disabled list, and since he became a full-time starter in 2007, Tulowitzki's only averaged 120 games per campaign.
It's possible Tulowitzki is on his way not just to the National League MVP but one of the better single seasons in recent memory -- but it's more likely he's going to lose enough playing time, enough momentum, and enough peak physical ability to a lower body or hip injury this year that we'll never know. Health is part of the game, too -- and with 197 games missed since 2010, it's maybe the only part of the game where Tulowitzki's been lacking.
Where does that leave the Rockies, then, besides temporarily at the top of the world? As is usual with teams that are a game or two over .600, there are more than three guys making it happen: Justin Morneau is healthy and looks like his old Minnesota Twins self from before the concussions, Drew Stubbs is hitting so well that he's bumped Blackmon into RF and Barnes to the bench over the last week (though this almost certainly won't last), and a bullpen headlined by Hawkins and stitched together with org guys, cheap free agent pickups and Cinderella stories have kept the team in games their shaky starting pitching should have lost them. That's the biggest concern at the moment -- the rotation, which was one of the major bright spots on last year's 74-88 squad, has been a net negative through the season's first month: Lyles has been fantastic, but Jorge de la Rosa and Tyler Chatwood have both struggled early and Jhoulys Chacin looked rusty in his start last Sunday -- his first of 2014, having spent all of April recovering from a shoulder strain.
The bats, as phenomenal as they are to watch right now, are going to cool down. Tulowitzki is probably the most flat-out talented everyday player in the sport other than the guy patrolling center in Anaheim and him putting up a full season of Barry Bonds numbers isn't entirely out of the question, but he's got a long way to go. Blackmon and Arenado are great young players too, but it's unlikely they'll keep their spots in the National League's "MVP-but-for-Tulo" pantheon for that much longer. Magic like this can't be bottled or turned on at will, and fans should enjoy it while it lasts instead of thinking it's the new normal. Tulowitzki might be the best player in baseball this year, and Arenado and Blackmon might legitimately emerge as two of the most promising young stars in the game, but soaring at such heights doesn't make Colorado immune to the basic facts of baseball. The rotation's going to have to start pulling its weight soon, or as fun as the ride's been so far in Colorado, it'll soon be coming to an end.