From the Rockpile
All of my reports on the Rockies will be “From the Rockpile,” because I’m a cheapskate who likes the top row of the outfield bleachers, and because I’m watching/blogging from New York City. It doesn’t get further from the field than that!
5 Things I’m Excited About This Season
1. The Cargo/Tulo 3-4 Punch
The Rockies have never NOT been known for their offense, but few will argue that the current middle of the lineup isn’t one of the best we’ve ever had. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki both finished in the top 5 in National League MVP voting for the 2010 season, and with good reason: they both finished the season with an average over .300 and more than 25 home runs, winning their first Silver Sluggers. They also suffered injuries that limited their power production (and in Tulo’s case, caused him to miss 40 games), so it’s clear there is potential for a lot more. Let the haters say what they will about the thin air at Coors – these two offensive powerhouses are poised to produce big numbers for the Rockies this year!
2. Our Dominican Ace
There’s a lot to love about the Rockies’ number one starting pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez. For one thing, he’s humble to a fault. In an interview with MLB Network this month, he took all the blame for his comparatively poor numbers in the second half of last season. Anybody who was paying attention knows that the offense’s lack of run support during Jimenez’s starts was the real culprit. But you’ll never hear him complain – just buckle down and do better. His 15-win first half was something everybody in baseball couldn’t believe, especially considering he was pitching in Denver! His best stuff is only going to be better this year, if the spring is any indication, and I’d bet my life he’ll be the Rockies first-ever 20-game winner.
3. Chacin Pitching Like a Veteran
One of last year’s best surprises was the performance delivered by the young Venezuelan Jhoulys Chacin. It took some time for the analysts and commentators to learn how to pronounce his name, but substantially less for them to notice his talent. He only pitched 11 innings in 2009, so 2010 was for all intents and purposes his rookie season. And what a season – in 137 1/3 innings, he struck out 138 batters. He showed terrific command of his fastball and his offspeed pitches, and enough maturity to hang in and not panic when he allowed some baserunners. I’ve got a lot of love for Jorge de la Rosa, but I’d be surprised if Chacin didn’t ultimately become our number two guy.
4. Seth Smith: There’s Hope
Seth Smith is beloved by Rockies fans for his critical pinch hits in the 2007 National League Championship Series, when the team won their first pennant. Unfortunately, he has not quite lived up to the hype with his offense in recent years, particularly in the 2010 season. Judging by the look on his face at the plate, he was as frustrated with his performance as any of us were. But things have been looking up for Smith this spring. He’s consistently produced in important situations, and his .308 average is (hopefully) a harbinger of good things to come. I’ll never stop believing in Smith altogether, but I find it easier to believe after watching him this spring.
5. Barmes’s Replacements Will Shine
It’s always sad to lose a homegrown player, and Clint Barmes’s departure to the Houston Astros this off-season was no small loss. The good news is that the Rockies have the most depth at the middle infield positions, and most of those players are young and yet to show how good they can truly be. To name just two, Jonathan Herrera and Chris Nelson have the potential to deliver both offensively and defensively this season. Herrera played just 76 games for the major league club last year, but he posted a respectable .284 average and a very respectable .694 OPS. This spring, he’s hitting .371, and he can play second base and shortstop equally well. I’d take this youngster over a lot of older players any day. Nelson, he of the spectacular steal of home last September, has had a rougher go of it this spring, but his speed and glove work spell good things for his future.
5 Keys to Winning This Season
1. A Winning April
The Rockies have made some spectacular late-season playoff runs, most notably in 2007 and 2009, but let’s face it – we’d all breathe a little easier if they went to the head of the division early on and stayed there. Part of the reason they’ve needed to surge late is because they tend to struggle so much in the first half, particularly in April and May. I think May’s poor performance is a matter of downtrodden spirits and bad habits developed in April, so the priority is to make that month a winning one and set the tone for the season. The good news: every team the Rockies face this April finished below .500 in 2010 (except for the Giants, but they’re bound to be our biggest divisional competition this season anyway, so I think it’s best that we get eyes on them early).
2. Help the Ace Out
The Rockies’ failure to throw Ubaldo Jimenez a bone in the second half of the season was one of their biggest as a team. Remember how many tries it took for him to get his club-record 18th win? Six, the first four of which were losses, while the fifth was a no-decision. The problem in each case was not Jimenez’s pitching, but the offense’s lack of production. I witnessed one of these heartbreakers firsthand at Citi Field in New York on August 10th, when Jimenez gave up just one run. It was starting to look like a conspiracy toward the end, but I have to believe it was all a coincidence – and one the hitters will take care to see does not repeat itself.
3. The 3-4 Punch Stays Healthy
That offensive production is heavily dependent on Gonzalez and Tulowitzki playing as many games as possible. They missed a combined 57 games last season to injury, and while their home run totals still exceeded those of most everyday players, we need them if we want to be assured a lot of victories. Tulowitzki’s killer September (15 home runs, second only Babe Ruth) seemed to indicate that he was swinging the bat better than ever after his wrist injury, so that month portends legendary things to come. If we can keep these two off the disabled list, look out major league baseball.
4. Balance the Old
and the New
Chacin, Herrera, and Nelson are coming out splendidly as young Rockies right now, but let’s not forget the guys who have been around a while longer, specifically Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart, and Todd Helton. One of manager Jim Tracy’s challenges this season will be to give these young guys the experience they need while still giving the veterans their share of playing time. This will be substantially harder if the veterans aren’t producing, which, quite frankly, seems likely. Iannetta has had a tough go of it the past couple seasons, and was no better than backup catcher last season with the arrival of Miguel Olivo. Miggy’s gone on to Seattle, so most of the playing time behind the plate will fall on Iannetta’s shoulders. Let’s hope he can better last year’s .188 average, or we can bet Jordan Pacheco will be donning the chest protector. Stewart has the potential to be one of the league’s best third basemen, but he hasn’t performed like one lately. His .256 average and 18 homers last season aren’t awful, but they’re not great either, and his .200 spring average leaves much to be desired. Helton, the Rockies iron horse and deservedly one of the most respected players, isn’t performing at his peak levels, but considering the fact that he’s in his late 40′s and has already delivered a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, no one’s complaining. He still comes through in the clutch, but he won’t always be the best choice for the starting lineup this season.
5. Middle Relievers Come Through
We’re pretty well set with starters and with Huston Street as our closer, but the rest of the bullpen will have to step it up a notch from 2010. Pitching coach Bob Apodaca seems convinced that optimism is the only feeling any of us should have regarding the pen for this season, but I’m still a little skeptical. Set-up men Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, and Matt Reynolds are going to have to do as well as they did on their best days last season. Matt Lindstrom, coming over from the Astros in the Barmes trade, seems a likely success, but no pitcher is safe at Coors Field until he proves to be so. I have greater concerns about Franklin Morales and Matt Daley, who may or may not make the final cut, and who have been pretty shaky this spring.
In general, Rockies fans? Take heart. Our team is going to finish the spring near the top of the major league heap, and while that doesn’t spell certain victory for the regular season, it speaks volumes of Tracy’s management and our players’ promise. Rocktober will be back this year – believe it!!
From Around the Majors
Just a few thoughts on the rest of the big league teams going into the season. The reigning world champion San Francisco Giants stand to be the only real threat to the Rockies division-title dreams (despite what Baseball Prospectus seems to think about the Dodgers), but it’s a potent threat indeed. In our meetings with them, we’ll have to hope our pitching is good enough to stave off their offense, since we’re not likely to get many runs off them. Elsewhere in the National League, the Phillies will win 100 games on the backs of their 1-4 starters, who will each be 20-game winners. If they don’t win the pennant, I’ll be shocked, although obviously I hope they don’t. The Braves will nip at their heels a bit, but the only real competition in the NL East will be between the Braves and Marlins for second place. The loss of Adam Wainwright is an enormous blow to the Cardinals, and I expect the real race in the Central this season to be between the Brewers and the Reds.
In the American League, the Red Sox are the other team I expect to win the pennant. Their acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford this offseason proves they’re in it to win it, and no one will be surprised if they do. Ideally, they’ll get at least a run for their money from the Yankees to keep it interesting. The Rays, whose team was turned inside out by offseason moves, don’t look like they’ll contend. The Angels’ rebuilding is not yet complete, so if the reigning American League champion Rangers are challenged for the West title, it will be by the Athletics. The Central could come down to the final week of the season, and is likely to be a three-horse race. The Twins, Tigers, and White Sox all have a shot at the playoffs this year.
2011 is going to be a good one. Here we go!