In '16, Rox eyeing pitching to support sluggers

In '16, Rox eyeing pitching to support sluggers

DENVER -- The Rockies watched their National League West competition make news, and spend big money, at the end of the 2015 calendar year. Does the new calendar year bring news from the Rockies?

The D-backs signed Zack Greinke for six years and $206 million, and traded a treasure trove of prospects to the Braves for Shelby Miller, and the Giants signed Jeff Samardzija for five years and $90 million and Johnny Cueto for six years and $130 million. The Dodgers ... well, they tried, and are vowing to spend. So the competition got its shopping done early.

So starting pitching remains on the Rockies' list. They also are known to be seeking another bullpen arm, after having brought in Jason Motte and Chad Qualls on two-year contracts.

Here are some issues to watch, in no particular order, as 2016 dawns:

• What becomes of outfielder Carlos Gonzalez?

From the clubhouse to manager Walt Weiss and the coaching staff to general manager Jeff Bridich and the front office, all expressed genuine happiness that Gonzalez returned to his star form after two years of debilitating injury. Consequently, all are pained at the possibility that they'll have to say goodbye.

However, the Rockies must get pitching somehow. With several free-agent outfielders demanding mega dollars, Gonzalez's $37 million salary commitment over the next two seasons qualifies as economical. But it'll come at a price. The indications are the Rockies are requiring a young Major League starter or top starting pitching prospect, plus a hard-throwing back-end reliever in exchange.

It would be nice to have Gonzalez in the middle of the Rockies' lineup. But is that possible?

Heretofore, the Rockies have not found a match. They pursued lefty Hector Santiago from the Angels but saw that dry up when the Angels sent a bullpen arm -- Trevor Gott -- to the Nationals. They were rebuffed when asking the Indians for Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar, the Orioles didn't bite when asked for Kevin Gausman, the White Sox weren't interested in giving up Jose Quintana and the Cardinals didn't want to talk Marco Gonzales. By signing right-hander Mike Leake, however, the Cardinals may be confident they have enough pitching depth to rekindle talks with the Rockies. The Royals and Nationals, with a nice group of prospects, as well as the Giants, remain possibilities, as well.

• Is there another way to get at least a starter?

The Rockies have a couple of valuable contracts in left fielder Corey Dickerson (four years of team control) and center fielder Charlie Blackmon (three). The Cubs had expressed interest in Blackmon before signing Jason Heyward. It isn't clear where that will go.

Lately, the Rays and Rockies have talked, although it isn't clear if the Rays want Dickerson, Blackmon or a prospect such as David Dahl or Raimel Tapia. The Rays have pitching depth in Jake Odorizzi, who is coveted by the Dodgers and Cardinals, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly.

• What's next for budding superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado?

First of all, there is a contract issue. Arenado is in the first of his four years of arbitration eligibility. Is he a candidate for an early mega-deal, the way the Rockies took care of Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki in past years?

Regardless of the dollar figures, the Rockies have Arenado for the next four seasons. For a guy who has won three Rawlings Gold Glove Awards in as many seasons, has climbed to the top of sabermetric defensive measures and is coming off a 42-home run, 130-RBI season, the sky could be the limit.

Arenado has said he is comfortable with being the franchise's calling card, the way Helton and Tulowitzki were in the past. So he is embracing the weight of trying to pull a losing franchise forward, partly because he realizes that he'll need help. Improved pitching would be the biggest assist.

• Can lefty Jorge De La Rosa avoid a slow start?

De La Rosa went 0-3 with a 7.58 ERA in his first four starts of 2014, and 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA in his first four in 2015. Beginning with his fifth start in 2014, he was 14-8 with a 3.70 ERA. In 2015, starting at the same point, he went 9-5 with a 3.52 ERA.

• Is righty 2013 No. 1 pick Jon Gray the real deal?

The numbers in nine starts last season -- 0-2, 5.53 ERA -- were mixed, although the Rockies closely monitored his pitch counts and had him under a tight innings limit. He had an 8.27 ERA in five home starts. However, Gray had 40 strikeouts against 14 walks and his one-run, five-inning, five-strikeout gem against the Padres on Aug. 15 was at Coors Field. He'll be given a chance to begin the season in the starting rotation.

• Is the pitching future bright enough to endure the anxiety of the present?

Righty Chad Bettis demonstrated power and savvy in 2015 and could be a front-of-the-rotation arm for the future. Not much is proven behind De La Rosa and Bettis, but second-year GM Bridich has a strategy for fixing the problem -- throw highly regarded arms at it.

Last year, lefty Chris Rusin and righty David Hale -- high Draft picks from the Cubs and Braves, respectively -- received their first extended big league trials. Recent first-round and supplemental first-round picks Tyler Matzek, Eddie Butler and Gray have already tiptoed into the Majors. Lefty Tyler Anderson is close to being a factor if his recovery from two years of dealing with elbow issues holds.

Lefty Kyle Freeland (chosen eighth overall in 2014) and righty Jeff Hoffman -- another gem from the Tulowitzki trade -- aren't far off. Righty Antonio Senzatela struck out 143 against 33 walks at the Class A Advanced level last year and could move quickly if he keeps up that pace.

Maybe it'll take the calendar year flipping another time or two, but if some begin to gain traction, 2016 could be merely a beginning.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.