Young star Carlos Gonzalez leads the Rockies into 2011.
The Rockies reached the postseason in two of the past four years — 2007 and 2009. They appear capable of returning, not because it’s an odd-numbered year but because they have three of the best young stars in the game in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, 26, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, 25, and pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, 27, and have addressed their offseason needs. To be sure, catcher Chris Iannetta, third baseman Ian Stewart and outfielder Seth Smith must hit better this season. The Rockies also need some sort of offensive revival from first baseman Todd Helton.
The Rockies went 52–29 at home, but to contend they must improve upon a 31–50 record on the road, where they hit a paltry .226. The hope is that help in these areas can come from new hitting coach Carney Lansford, who brings an intense approach and has experience with Smith, Stewart and Iannetta as the Triple-A Colorado Springs hitting coach.
The Rockies are a good defensive team, although somewhat diminished by the departure of second baseman Clint Barmes. The bullpen, particularly the back end, appears to be a strength. The rotation is strong at the top with Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa, and promising in the middle with Jhoulys Chacin, but there is some cause for concern at the back end.
The Rockies went 22–11 in starts by Jimenez, who threw the first no-hitter in franchise history. Re-signing De La Rosa, the No. 2 starter, enables the Rockies to leave the still-developing Chacin, 23, in the middle of the rotation. De La Rosa missed 67 games last year with a left finger injury and has pitched more than 130 innings in a major league season only once. The Rockies hope he can approximate or surpass his career-high 185 innings in 2009. Aaron Cook was sidelined for a month in August by a toe injury that had caused him to alter his delivery. He won his two September starts before a line drive fractured his right leg in the second outing. A healthy Cook, 32, would solidify the rotation. Jason Hammel fills the role of a No. 5 starter well.
The back end is very strong with closer Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle and the addition of Matt Lindstrom. Because Lindstrom has closed, the Rockies can keep Betancourt and Belisle in place and have an alternative if Street, who missed the first 69 games last year with shoulder and groin injuries, gets hurt or falters. Newcomer Felipe Paulino, who has started and provides rotation insurance, can pitch middle relief. So can Esmil Rogers, who provides bullpen and rotation depth if he doesn’t begin the season in Triple-A. Lefthander Matt Reynolds settled in nicely after getting called up in August and can work late in the game. The Rockies must decide whether erratic lefty Franklin Morales can complement Reynolds or if it’s better to carry one lefthander and wait until fast-rising Rex Brothers is ready. The Rockies have added bullpen depth with Matt Daley, Samuel Deduno and Edgmer Escalona, making a trade a possibility.
Tulowitzki, who signed a seven-year, $134 million contract extension that runs through 2020, is the total package — a cleanup hitter who also hits for average and plays superb defense. Tulowitzki is also the team’s best leader, outspoken when necessary in the clubhouse and comfortable with that responsibility. The Rockies hope second baseman Jose Lopez, acquired from the Mariners, can provide the offense he did prior to a poor 2010. If Lopez ends up with the bulk of the playing time at second base, it’s likely Jonathan Herrera will be a late-inning defensive replacement.
Helton continues to play very good defense. Even with his diminished power, the Rockies hope Helton, 37, can supply more punch than last year when his output dwindled to eight homers, 37 RBIs and a .367 slugging percentage. Newcomer Ty Wigginton gives the Rockies a right-handed hitting alternative to both Helton and third baseman Ian Stewart. A solid defender with plus power, Stewart made better contact last year than he did in 2009 before a strained right oblique and then the flu essentially ended his season in late August. The Rockies believe Lansford’s guidance can help Stewart be more a consistent hitter, particularly against left-handed pitchers.
The Rockies have two outstanding defensive outfielders in Gonzalez and center fielder Dexter Fowler. Gonzalez is the reigning NL batting champion and the quintessential five-tool player. He hit leadoff extensively until June 22 when he was moved to third, where he has found a niche. The switch-hitting Fowler was a markedly better left-handed hitter after returning from a month in the minors in late June. Smith, a lefty, and Ryan Spilborghs, a right-handed hitter, are adequate defensively and streaky hitters.
Iannetta has good receiving skills and works well with the pitchers. He has decent power and can draw walks but needs to relax at the plate. Jose Morales, a switch-hitter acquired from the Twins, has minimal power and won’t be a defensive upgrade over Iannetta but has shown an ability to reach base. For depth, the Rockies have Mike McKenry, who earned a September call-up, and Matt Pagnozzi, signed to a minor league contract.
Wigginton can play first base, second and third and even the outfield, and he gives the Rockies a much-needed versatile right-handed bat and power threat off the bench. Smith is a career .330 pinch hitter (38-for-115) with five homers, 32 RBIs and a .635 slugging percentage. Spilborghs led the Rockies with 13 pinch hits last year and tied for second on the club with eight pinch-hit RBIs behind Smith (12). Assuming Lopez starts at second base, the Rockies will have to decide which two to keep from among Jonathan Herrera, Chris Nelson and Eric Young Jr. Either of the first two will provide better defense, but Young has exceptional speed. The Rockies signed veterans Jason Giambi, Joe Crede and Willy Taveras to minor league deals in hopes they will make the team and add depth to the bench.
GM Dan O’Dowd, working with a payroll of about $85 million, filled the club’s primary needs. He obtained a power arm with upside from Houston in Paulino for second baseman Barmes, who was not going to be tendered a 2011 contract. O’Dowd re-signed free agent De La Rosa, who wasn’t interested in longer, richer offers elsewhere and took the Rockies’ two-year, $21.5 million deal that could keep him with the team through 2014. He acquired the veteran power reliever he wanted in Lindstrom, whom the Astros moved to lower their payroll. Lopez was acquired from the Mariners for Triple-A pitcher Chaz Roe, who had fallen from prospect status. Expendable lefthander Paul Bargas brought Morales. And Wigginton, 33, was signed to an affordable two-year, $8 million contract.
Last year, the Rockies fought back from a 10-game deficit on Aug. 27 and were one game behind on Sept. 18 before losing 13 of their final 14 games. Assuming a calmer, healthier season, better hitting from Stewart, Smith, Iannetta and Helton, improvement on the road and more consistent play, the Rockies, who had a 10-game winning streak and two eight-game losing streaks last year, should contend. They close the season with a seven-game road trip that could determine whether they play in October — four at Houston and the final three at San Francisco.