The Stock Show has drawn to a close in Denver and that means the start of Spring Training for our beloved Colorado Rockies is only a few weeks away. You can almost smell the green, freshly mowed grass at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale. And, while home plate in the shadows of Coors Field might be covered in snow, visions of a National League West title are starting to dance in our heads. Sound far-fetched? Not really. Here are five reasons your Colorado Rockies will be playing baseball in Rocktober!
1. Rafael Betancourt as the Closer
The Rockies shipped oft-injured closer Huston Street to San Diego this offseason where a change of scenery and pitcher-friendly Petco Park should suit him well. Rafael Betancourt inherited the closers job in August last season when Street went on the disabled list. He did not flinch in that role going 8-for-9 in save opportunities. In 29 games following the All Star break, Betancourt had a 0.33 ERA allowing only one earned run in 27 innings with one walk and 39 strikeouts. Betancourt is smart and works effectively to hitters. Additionally, he has a steely demeanor and does not rattle easy. Based on his performance last year, the closer position is one area the Rockies do not need to worry about.
2. The Pitching Staff
The pitching staff? Yes, the pitching staff.
Let’s begin with the starting pitching. The Rockies are loaded with arms and the competition should be lively for the five rotation spots among up to 11 potential starters coming to camp. General Manager Dan O’Dowd has done a nice job stocking the 40-man roster with good solid pitching prospects starting with last season’s trade of Ubaldo Jimenez. While most are prospects, the Rockies sport an offensive line-up that should score some runs this year meaning the starting rotation won’t need to be spectacular. If the starters can keep them in games through at least six innings and post an ERA in the middle 4.00’s the Rox will win more games than they lose when it becomes a battle of the bullpens.
Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio, who is now throwing to live hitters from behind a screen following his remarkable recovery from a broken neck last year, should occupy the top two rotation spots. The Rockies need 12-15 wins each from these two which should be achievable as they continue to develop.
That leaves three rotation spots and eight potential candidates including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Jamie Moyer, Tyler Chatwood, Jason Hammel, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Esmil Rogers.
Moscoso and Pomeranz seem likely candidates to grab two of the rotation spots. Moscoso came over from Oakland as part of the Seth Smith trade. He started 21 games last year and posted a fine 3.38 ERA over 128 innings. Drew Pomeranz was the cornerstone piece of the Jimenez trade with Cleveland last season and the lefty figures to make his presence felt on the big league club this year.
Alex White, who appears to be fully recovered from the middle-finger injury on his pitching hand that plagued him last year, and Tyler Chatwood, acquired from the Angels for Chris Ianetta and owner of electric stuff are young and could make a run at the fifth rotation spot. Fallbacks Jason Hammel and 49-year old Jamie Moyer are proven 10-game winners as recently as 2010 and can fill the void if required.
Lastly, let’s not forget Jorge De La Rosa. He continues to make good progress on his recovery from Tommy John surgery and is on schedule in his rehabilitation. Look to see him crack the rotation sometime in May.
The bullpen should be solid this year. In addition to Betancourt as the closer, the Rockies appear to be set with Matt Belisle (3.25 ERA in 2011), Matt Lindstrom (3.00), Matt Reynolds (3.54), Rex Brothers (2.88) and Eduardo Escalona (1.75). Look for Tyler Chatwood, Alex White, Josh Outman, Esmil Rogers or Jason Hammel to fill out the bullpen once the starting rotation is set. If the starting pitchers can match the opposition starter each night, the Rockies bullpen should give them a distinct advantage in the late innings.
3. A Blake Street Bomber-Type Offense
Offensively, the Rockies lineup appears to be stacked. Thanks to the maneuvering of O’Dowd, the gaping offensive holes at third, second, catcher and right field appear to be plugged with the acquisitions of Marco Scutaro (2B), Casey Blake (3B), Ramon Hernandez (C) and Michael Cuddyer (RF).
The Rockies figure to feature an opening day lineup of Dexter Fowler (CF .288 average in the second half of 2011 and an .880 OPS), Scutaro (2B .299 Red Sox in 2011), Carlos Gonzalez (LF .295), Troy Tulowitzki (SS .302), Cuddyer (RF .284 Twins in 2011), Todd Helton (1B .302), Blake (3B .252 Dodgers in 2011) and Hernandez (C .282 Angels in 2011).
Look for Wilin Rosario (C), Jordan Pacheco (IF), Jason Giambi (1B), Charlie Blackmon (OF) and Chris Nelson to fill out the remainder of the 25-man roster. Lastly, look for Nolan Arenado (3B) to make his way to the big leagues sooner rather than later this season. He has been rated the top third base prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com and ripped up Single-A ball last year with his impressive display of power, average and plate discipline.
Gone are the lackluster at-bats last year from Chris Ianetta, Seth Smith, Ryan Spillbourghs, Ian Stewart and the weak black hole of second base. The new acquisitions have all proven they can rake at the Major League level and bring unique attributes to the lineup: Scutaro consistently has had a high on-base percentage which will give Carlos Gonzales and Troy Tulowitzki plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. Cuddyer brings a veteran clubhouse presence along with a powerful bat to protect Tulo and allow Helton to hit in the sixth spot. Casey Blake and Ramon Hernandez bring the ability to generate quality at-bats to the bottom of the lineup. Hernandez is also known as a solid game manager behind the plate and should give plenty of veteran leadership to a young, inexperienced pitching staff
This lineup might not be hitting balls out of the park like the Bombers of the 1990’s, but look for the deep alleys at Coors Field to be seeing plenty of opposing outfielders chasing down balls there this year and plenty of runs crossing the plate.
This lineup will protect and give confidence to a young pitching staff and should give the rest of the National League fits.
4. Todd Helton’s Last Hurrah
Helton enters the second to last year of his mega contract, and probably his career, and is still looking for World Series ring. He has been loyal to the Rockies for a Hall of Fame worthy career and will command the respect of his teammates through his work ethic and professionalism on the field.
Last season Helton put a Herculean effort into his offseason workout program and it showed on the field as he was healthy for the entire season and posted a .302 batting average rebounding from a career-worst .256 average in 2010. And, while the power numbers are gone, his .385 on base percentage and .850 OPS are more than adequate to fill the sixth spot in the Rockies order.
Helton has been a throwback in the modern day baseball world of chasing big dollar contracts and the local hero deserves to go out with one more run into October. His teammates will rally behind him this year and his intangibles will be a big reason they win the NL West.
6. A Weak West Division
Last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks cruised to a 94-win, eight game cushion over second place San Francisco who had 86 wins. The Dodgers clawed their way to a game over .500 and the Padres were terrible.
Don’t look for a repeat performance from Arizona. Ian Kennedy had a career year at 21-4 besting his previous mark of nine wins in 2010. Micah Owings was an unheard of 8-0 and Daniel Hudson won 16 games in his first full season. While the Diamondbacks have solid pitching and a farm system stocked with good pitching prospects, it will not be enough to carry a mediocre offense this year.
Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego haven’t done enough in this offseason to get to 90 wins.
The Rockies won 92 games in 2009 and 90 games in 2007. 91 should be enough to win the West this year and the Rockies have the offense to wear out opposing pitchers by consistently putting pressure on the opposing staff with quality at bats.
So there you have it. As the Rockies enter their 20th big league season, the pieces are in place for them to capture their first National League West crown and bring Rocktober back to the Mile High City. Good-enough starting pitching, the best bullpen the Rockies have assembled in years, an offensive juggernaut that will feature a solid lineup from one to eight and a division of beatable foes make this the year to bring home the pennant.
Jeff Lehman is a blog contributor for Gold Star Games, a leading tailgate gear supplier specializing in NFL, NCAA and MLB related apparel and much more