Emma: Rising Rockies Could Challenge Cubs For NL Crown

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Cool as they come, Rockies manager Bud Black broke from his dry humor with a smile when posed with the question.

Does Nolan Arenado gets his fair share of respect as one of baseball’s brightest young stars?

“I appreciate him,” Black replied with that smirk. “What do you think?

I think he’s deserving of more respect.

“Then give it to him,” Black said in an engaging tone.

“Charlie Blackmon should, and Carlos Gonzalez and Trevor Story and Alexi Amarista and Tony Wolters and DJ LeMahieu and Mark Reynolds.

“Let’s get it out there.”

Black could talk baseball all day long. He’s an easygoing personality who worked his way up with Cubs manager Joe Maddon on Mike Scioscia’s Angels coaching staff. Beginning Thursday at Wrigley Field, Maddon’s defending World Series champion Cubs and Black’s first-place Rockies square off for four games in a battle of potential October foes.

Baseball’s upstart team just two years ago, the Cubs are now defending their crown. Here come the Rockies, off to their best start in franchise history, as a deep group that could challenge the kings of the National League.

Atop that famed scoreboard in center field, the Rockies’ purple flag flies above that of the Giants and Dodgers, the gold standard in the NL West. Colorado has been among the biggest surprises around the baseball world at 38-23 entering this series in Chicago.

But given the names Black mentioned, the Rockies shouldn’t be catching baseball off guard.

It starts with Arenado, the perennial MVP candidate and one of the most electrifying players in the game. The Cubs have Kris Bryant at third base, and the Rockies have their own star there too. Arenado has a 2.4 WAR on FanGraphs and boasts a .927 OPS with 14 homers and 42 RBIs.

For all his accolades at the plate, Arenado’s glove reigns supreme. He has won a Gold Glove in each of his first four years in the big leagues.

“His defense is just unbelievable,” Story said. “Every night, he’s making a play that I’ve never seen before.”

Then there’s Charlie Blackmon, who entered Thursday just behind Arenado with a 2.3 WAR. He has always been a steady player in center field, but this year has seen the 30-year-old Blackmon break out. Blackmon has a .984 OPS and has been a catalyst at the top of the Colorado lineup.

It’s a dangerous task for pitchers, with Blackmon, LeMahieu, Arenado, Reynolds, Gonzalez, Desmond and then Story, who broke out as a rookie in 2016. There’s power, speed and one tough out after another. Nobody knows it better than Black, who from 2007-’15 managed the Padres and saw the Rockies develop these young talents.

“I was impressed by them as opponents,” Black said. “I’m probably even more impressed now that I’m with them by how they go about it.”

Added Story: “We’re very close. We like coming to the yard and just playing and competing together. It’s pretty cool to have those kind of guys around me to help me throughout my career. It’s been special.”

When it comes to the Rockies, their chances are always centered around the starting pitching. Manning the mound at Coors Field in Colorado presents problems — not only because of the mile-high elevation but also the deep power alleys. Make a mistake and the ball is flying out or rolling to the wall. That ballpark has seen plenty of crooked numbers.

When the Rockies made the World Series a decade ago in 2007, their pitching staff managed a 4.32 ERA and 4.48 xFIP, led by Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Josh Fogg and a young Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Rockies have gotten strong pitching in 2017, with a team 4.09 ERA and 3.97 xFIP entering Thursday. Rookies Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela have been good, as have young prospects German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman. Veteran Tyler Chatwood is steady, and Chad Bettis hopes to rejoin the team soon after a battle with testicular cancer.

Oh, and this is one of baseball’s youngest rotations. Imagine if it could sustain alongside this dynamic lineup. The Rockies could be dangerous, but it all starts with working at Coors Field.

While the Rockies are 21-10 away from home, their young pitchers have managed to work around the ballpark’s quirks by pitching to contact and letting an elite defense work behind them.

“I love pitching there,” said Freeland, a Denver native.

Entering Thursday’s game, Colorado was 1.5 games up in the NL West after an Arizona win over San Diego. The Diamondbacks have been the other major surprise, now at 37-25 after sweeping the Padres. The Dodgers are looming at 36-25. Then there are the Giants struggling along at 25-37.

Only the Dodgers and Giants have won the NL West in the last decade, with Los Angeles seeking its fifth straight division title. The Rockies have never won their division since coming to existence with expansion in 1993.

But there has also never been a Rockies team quite like this one, with so much talent in the lineup and pitchers able to manage pitching a mile above sea level.

The Cubs may have a date with this Rockies team somewhere in October. For now, this upstart group is focused on what’s next.

“We believe we’re a good team and we’ve shown that so far,” Story said. “But it’s still early. We’re very confident, but it’s a long season to go.”

It is early, but not too soon to appreciate this team.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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