Rox poised for more after season of growth

Story, young pitchers step forward and flash potential

Rox poised for more after season of growth

A Rockies team that hadn't tasted the joy of contention since 2010 at least got a tiny whiff of it in 2016.

"I think we were relatively close, and deep into the season, we were still in it," said Walt Weiss, who will not return for a fifth season as the Rockies' manager. 

A bullpen that saw its major acquisitions battle injury and inconsistency -- and was overly dependent on youth at crucial times -- was exposed during the season's final months.

Rox have solid nucleus to build around for '17

So the 2016 season ends with the bitterness of yet another sub-.500 record and some uncertainty of who the manager will be next year. But this season showed that the Rockies aren't the same team as before, even though their record wasn't much different.

Record: 75-87, third place, National League West.

Defining moment: Rookie Carlos Estevez became the closer in June -- a little more than a year after his last Class A appearance. While he was impressive, the reason he was the closer was because he was available. Adam Ottavino wasn't back from last year's Tommy John surgery, Jairo Diaz underwent Tommy John surgery during Spring Training, Jason Motte's shoulder issues prevented him from being a factor in the ninth inning, and Jake McGee -- closer at the start of the season -- was out with a left knee injury.

And, with a fastball exceeding 100 mph, Estevez had converted 11 of his first 12 chances as closer when he entered in the ninth inning against the Marlins on Aug. 5, after the Rockies had scored all their runs in the eighth for a 3-1 lead. It was a chance to peek back above .500.

Estevez allows a two-run single

It was at that point when Estevez's inexperience bit Colorado. A leadoff walk led to a four-run inning that resulted in a 5-3 Rockies loss. Estevez blew his next opportunity, against the Rangers, and relinquished the closer's role to Ottavino, who displayed the on-again, off-again sharpness that happens in the year after surgery.

The shifts in the ninth inning didn't just affect the ninth. McGee, at first, and Ottavino, later on, were effective in setup roles. Moving them destabilized the middle-relief and setup crew.

What went right: An offense led by third baseman Nolan Arenado, who became the third player at his position to have at least two 40-home run seasons before age 26 (Eddie Matthews 1951-53 and Troy Glaus 2000-01 are the others), was potent. Second baseman DJ LeMahieu led the National League in hitting for much of the season, leadoff man Charlie Blackmon had a breakout year, in terms of power and home-road splits, and Carlos Gonzalez remained a deserving All-Star.

LeMahieu's RBI double in the 1st

But the starting pitching was different. Righty Jon Gray blew away the Rockies' rookie strikeout record, Chad Bettis backed up a solid 2015 with another solid campaign, Tyler Chatwood returned after missing nearly two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and had one of the Majors' best road performances, and rookie lefty Tyler Anderson stood out -- especially at home.

Chatwood's eight shutout innings

The starters' improvement was measurable.

In April, according to Fangraphs, the Rockies' starting rotation ranked 22nd in the Majors in WAR (wins above replacement). But in May, they were 11th -- and ranked 10th in June and rose to third in July. In August, they fell back to 22nd. It'll take more than three strong months to truly contend, but it was an undeniable step forward.

The farm system also provided not just depth, but high-end rookie talent beyond Gray and Anderson. Trevor Story hit homers for his first four Major League hits and set a National League record for homers by a rookie shortstop with 27, before suffering a season-ending torn left thumb ligament on July 30. Offensively, outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia proved late in the season why their debuts were so highly anticipated, while catcher Tom Murphy showcased impressive power in his second straight September. Starters Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez, two of a talented group of prospects, were also given opportunities.

Statcast: Story's monster smash

Rookie types tend to take lumps, but that's not all bad. Estevez may have played a part in some bullpen meltdowns that defined the season, but the fact is he earned his first Major League save just shy of a calendar year from his last game at the Class A level.

Not only did the stars perform, but the Rockies received strong work from reserves Daniel Descalso, a left-handed hitter who saw extensive starting duty because of injuries, and Ryan Raburn, a righty-hitter and valuable pinch-hitter.

The Rockies can also be excited about under-the-radar pickup Tony Wolters, a catcher who hadn't played above Double-A with the Indians. Wolters finished among the top catchers in pitch-framing and was a left-handed complement to veteran Nick Hundley.

What went wrong: During the aforementioned solid run by the starters, the Rockies went a combined 41-41 -- mostly because of the bullpen. The relievers were a solid fifth in WAR in May, but were 29th in June and 14th in July.

Injuries to Motte, McGee and Chad Qualls (colitis) were problems. Righty Miguel Castro, part of the deal that sent Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays last year, burned brightly in the early weeks but suffered a shoulder injury and became a non-factor.

Castro sits down Refsnyder

Offensively, Gerardo Parra signed for $27.5 million over three years, then struggled with impatient at-bats early before he suffered a left ankle injury in June and missed 46 games. After his return, the emergence of Dahl left Parra as an expensive extra outfielder and sometimes first baseman.

Biggest surprise: Because Story did not sit atop prospect lists, no one knew what to expect when the suspension of veteran Jose Reyes (now with the Mets) opened a spot for him. His record-setting first week and month showed what was possible.

Hitter of the Year: Arenado tops the list not only because he repeated the power of last season, but his all-around offensive game showed improvement. However, LeMahieu's push for the NL batting title, Blackmon's eye-popping numbers with batting average and power from the leadoff position, and Gonzalez's continued power and average can't be discounted.

Arenado's homer in the 1st

Pitcher of the Year: Gray's power made his starts must-see viewing. Performances like his 16-strikeout game against the Padres seem possible every time he takes the mound. He gets the nod over Chatwood, who struggled at home but turned in a stellar road performance -- important for a team that tends to struggle offensively away from Coors Field.

Gray's 10th strikeout

Rookie of the Year: Gray was impressive and Anderson showed promise, but Story posted numbers before he was hurt that most rookies couldn't match over a full season. Impressively, Story showed progress in quality of at-bats and could eventually reach Arenado's level. He also exceeded expectations defensively.

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. 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.