While their young position players are steadily improving, the Colorado Rockies took a step back on the mound this winter, and that can't be good.
At the end of April last season there were several good stories in the majors with a few surprise teams at or near the top of their divisions. One of those stories was the Colorado Rockies who were playing .600 ball and leading the AL West. It seemed too good to be true, and it was as the Rockies played 15-games below .500 the rest of the way to share the basement in the NL West.
Colorado was getting it done in the early going last year partly with solid pitching. Yes, that’s correct; I used the words Colorado and solid pitching in the same sentence. Conspiracy theorists will immediately point to Humidor-Gate as the reason behind some of the pitching numbers. But since I don’t buy into a lot of conspiracies, I’ll leave that discussion for someone who does.
The Rockies weren’t supposed to contend in the division last year, and while pitching helped them into the early position on top in the division, their initial 10-3 run on the road was the real reason they had the early lead. And going 23-44 away from Coors and that tricky humidor from May on was the reason Colorado eventually settled in a tie with the D-backs at the bottom of the division when October rolled around. And there’s a good chance the Rocks will reside alone in the cellar of the division this season.
During the winter every other NL West team went out and added a top name to their mound. Everyone but Colorado, that is. The Dodgers inked Jason Schmidt, formerly of the Giants, to a free agent deal. The Padres signed Greg Maddux, who spent 2006 with the Cubs and Dodgers. The Giants lost Schmidt, but coaxed Barry Zito to jump across the bay from Oakland as a free agent. And the Diamondbacks brought Randy Johnson back in a deal with the Yankees.
The Rockies? The biggest starter they added to their fold without losing an ace was Rodrigo Lopez.
It might still be too early to anoint them the second coming of the Blake Street Bombers, but the young hitters are starting to come together and the offensive future looks bright. That is as long as the Rockies can afford to keep one of Scott Boras’ clients.
Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins are an impressive trio to add to Todd Helton. Holliday has advanced nicely the last three years and is definitely the centerpiece at this time. But with Boras as his agent, how long he remains the centerpiece in Colorado remains to be seen.
Atkins had a fantastic year with 29 bombs, 120 driven in and a .329 average. Several teams reportedly made inquiries about Hawpe during the winter, but the Rockies appear intent on keeping the young right-fielder who increased his OPS about 150 points in 2006. Assuming those three players keep getting better, it will take some pressure off Helton to bounce back from his .302, 15-HR campaign, though a lot of players would love to call that a bad season.
So that takes care of the edges of Colorado’s defense with Holliday and Hawpe in the outfield corners and Helton and Atkins the infield corners. How about the middle of the field? Willy Taveras is the best bet to roam center right now and lead off. He came from Houston in the Jennings deal and can definitely cover the big ground in Coors’ center field. But as was shown last year, if you take away the bunt base hit from him, Willy T struggles to reach base.
Outfield reserves will be battled this spring between the recently signed Steve Finley, Ryan Spilborghs, Cory Sullivan and Jeff Baker. Another guy with a chance to stick in a reserve role is John Mabry since he also has some infield experience.
Behind the plate should be Yorvit Torrealba and Chris Iannetta. Torrealba did ok last year, but Iannetta is the man the Rockies eventually want behind the mask. They could opt to leave Iannetta in the minors to start the season, but that’s only going to happen if Javy Lopez, who signed with the Rocks in the winter, shows he’s got something left with the bat. We know he doesn’t have much left with the mitt.
Shortstop appears to be Tory Tulowitzki’s job to lose this spring. He had a decent showing in the Arizona Fall League on the heels of a good Double-A season. If he falters this spring, then Clint Barmes will once again start at short. If Tulowitzki is ready, then Barmes is a backup.
Kaz Matsui and Jamey Carroll will fight it out for the Opening Day start at second, and the winner will hit second in Colorado’s order.
Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis would be welcome to pitch on my staff. Only they’d be somewhere in the 3-4-5 rotation slots and not in the 1-2 roles.
Cook and Francis both made 32 starts last year, combined for over 400 innings and kept their ERA’s in the low 4.00’s which is a pretty good number even if they did have that humidor cranked up at times in the Mile High City. They’re 28 and 26 respectively entering this year and give a very nice, young right-left pair in a rotation. But they shouldn’t be asked to be the top two arms at this stage.
But manager Clint Hurdle has little choice considering the hodgepodge of arms behind those two. Entering exhibition play, Josh Fogg and Byung-Hyun Kim are the 3-4 arms by default. The best thing you can say about both of them is they stayed healthy last year and combined they will only run about $6 million this season meaning it won’t feel like a huge loss when the two repeat similar performances from 2006.
The two best known names vying for the fifth slot in the rotation are Rodrigo Lopez and Brian Lawrence, with Lawrence probably not in the starting plans until early May as he continues his comeback from surgery. Early May might be good timing since that should be about the time the Lopez experiment is officially announced a failure. A lot is eventually expected from Jason Hirsh who came over with Taveras and Taylor Buchholz from the Astros. But personally, Hirsh reminds me a lot of Scott Elarton when he first came up, and I don’t expect Hirsh to become a staff ace or even a strong 2-arm in a rotation. Buchholz had flashes of brilliance last year in Houston but eventually proved as inconsistent as Tim Redding before him. Oscar Rivera is an interesting invitee to camp from the Mexican League, and the young southpaw could pay dividends before the season is out. Ubaldo Jimenez will start the year in Triple-A and could see action before the season is over. He’s a better long-term bet than Hirsh.
Brian Fuentes is back in the closer’s role and the 31-year-old lefty should deliver another season with 25-35 saves and a decent ERA. LaTroy Hawkins, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Corpas, all right-handers, are the top bets to perform in the seventh and eighth innings. Corpas had some solid success in the closer’s role o at the Double-A level before being advanced quickly through Triple-A and was up with the big league club by seasons’s end.
There’s an interesting mix of veteran names also looking for work in Colorado’s bullpen, including Ryan Speier, Tom Martin , Matt Herges and Mike DeJean. But one name that sticks out is Dave Veres who is trying to get back into the bigs following hip surgery. He’s a long shot having last pitched in the majors in 2003, but still an interesting story
Key Player(s): Certainly a lot of pressure on the front two in the rotation, Cook and Francis, especially Francis who just took home a nice contract extension in the offseason. And there will be pressure on Helton to get back to his old ways as well as the youngsters Holliday, Atkins and Hawpe to continue to advance. But their ability to actually compete this season and not totally embarrass each other a 90+ loss season will ride on the success of the rotation’s back end as well as the bullpen.
Futures: Bodog lists Colorado at 13:1 to finish on top in the NL West, 35:1 to take the NL Flag and 100:1 to win the World Series. That’s more respect than I would give the Rockies, though it has proven to be a bit if a funky division in years. The Greek has the win total break at 74½, the fifth lowest total among the 30 MLB teams posted at the site.
Unless someone like a Fogg, Kim, Lopez or Hirsh comes through with an unexpectedly solid season, I see 90 losses as a very real possibility. I’ll give a little on that and project the Rockies at 73-89.