Opening Week is finally upon us for the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and no one is drinking the Colorado Rockies’ Kool-Aid. Who can blame them? In a division boasting the likes of Matt Cain, Ian Kennedy, Chad Billingsley, and Ryan Vogelsong, not to mention former Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw, what have the Rockies done to improve their pitching staff? As acquisitions such as Trevor Cahill and Edinson Volquez have bolstered the rotations of division foes, the Rockies best pitching additions have come in the form of a man who has led the American League in losses in two of the past three seasons, and a 49 year old who didn’t even pitch in 2011. Yes the additions of Guthrie and the ageless Jamie Moyer have done little to dispel the notion that Colorado could indeed be the cellar-dwellers of the National League West, and questions about the near future of the lineup abound. Can the Rockies get enough production out of the hot corner until the arrival of 20 year old Nolan Arenado? At age 36, how much does Marco Scutaro have left in the tank? Is Dexter Fowler closer to the player we saw the second half of 2011, or closer to the player we saw in the first half of 2011 and in Spring Training 2012?
Yes, the future looks murky for the Rockies, and most pundits have the team finishing fourth in the division, but fear not Colorado fans, for there is hope! The Rockies have made upgrades this season in places that haven’t been addressed in years. Their pitching staff has as much potential as ever before. And by the way, no one in the NL West is poised to set the world on fire in 2012. So without further ado, here are the reasons to be hopeful that the Rockies can win the division, or at least grab a wildcard spot, in 2012.
Anyone but Stewart
Most people are looking at third base as a huge question mark for the Rockies this season. Hard to argue with, since Jordan Pacheco’s major league experience consists of all of about a month, and Chris Nelson has yet to prove he can hit consistently at the major league level in parts of two seasons. But how quickly we forget, this is a team who boasted Ian Stewart as their Opening Day starter a year ago. That’s right, he of the three hits in his first 47 at bats of the season. He of the .106 average before the all-star break. He of the 19 hits for the entire 2011 season. For crying out loud, if the Rockies couldn’t find someone better than that to play the hot corner, they would have fared better just utilizing a fourth outfielder and just letting Troy Tulowitzki patrol the entire left side of the infield. While Pacheco and Nelson are virtual unknowns, the general consensus is that Pacheco will hit at the big league level, and Nelson has hit .253 in the major leagues, albeit in limited duty. Call me crazy, but I’m absolutely buying that they can at least fare better than the .222 average and 14 home runs that the club mustered out of the third base position last season.
Movin’ On Up
“Veteran upgrades” is not a phrase we are used to hearing in Colorado. It simply doesn’t happen… until now. Last season, as the masses got excited for the Rockies, anticipating the first division title in franchise history, I looked at the lineup and just saw too many holes. Players like Chris Ianetta, the aforementioned Ian Stewart, the platoon in right field, and the enigma at second base made me wonder what all the fuss was about. As the club faltered in early May, those holes became more glaring than ever. But this past offseason, for the first time in recent memory, the Rockies set out to do something about it.
Rather than rushing prospects into roles they weren’t ready for or adding players that couldn’t crack the lineup for their previous clubs, the team added veterans who had been solid contributors and key cogs in everyday lineups in 2011. Michael Cuddyer adds needed power in right field, and will do wonders for the quality of pitches Tulowitzki gets to hit if he bats out of the fifth spot in the order (he’s currently slated 6th, but expect that to change if Helton struggles at all). Marco Scutaro fills a void at second base that has been glaring since 2006, the last time the players at that position combined to hit above Scutaro’s career average. At 36 Scutaro may not be a long term solution, but his last three seasons have been his best offensively, and his defensive range is rivaled only by Clint Barmes among former Rockies second basemen. At catcher, the team signed veteran Ramon Hernandez to start and mentor the young Wilin Rosario while finally dumping the enigmatic Ianetta after four straight underachieving campaigns. Hernandez adds a career average over 30 points higher than Ianetta’s, and has hit .289 his previous two seasons in Cincinnati. So while Dexter Fowler still has much to prove in his 2012 campaign, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Rockies lineup will be far superior to the 2011 model.
Untested, Not Poor
The biggest farce going right now is the idea that Colorado has no pitching, or that their staff is bad. The truth is that the Rockies’ management has no idea how their pitching staff will perform…. And neither do you or I. Here’s what we know for sure: Jeremy Guthrie is likely to throw 200 innings this season (seeing as he has the past three seasons), and Jhoulys Chacin is coming off a rookie year in which he posted one of the five best ERAs in Coors Field history. Everything else is unknown.
What should make us hopeful, aside from those two facts, is that the Rockies boast a pitching staff that has as much potential as any team in the division. Drew Pomeranz’s meteoric rise to the big leagues took less than a full season, and he has been profiled as an ace since day one, with some scouts even claiming he reminds them of Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young winner. Juan Nicasio has made a near miraculous recovery from the broken neck he suffered on a line drive last season, and throws an effortless 97 mph with an attitude that belies his lack of experience at the big league level. How Nicasio’s breaking stuff progresses throughout the season should give us a much better idea where he slates in the Rockies’ future plans. As for Jamie Moyer, the guy has been defying odds for years. The Cubs once asked him to become one of their coaches. In the 1990s. The point is that there is no precedent for a 49 year old pitching in the modern era, so there is no telling what to expect.
Still the NL Worst
The Rockies play in the NL West. Not the Central, not the East, not any of the American League divisions, the NL West. If they played in any of those other divisions, the team would almost certainly be in trouble. But they don’t. They play in the NL West. Behind Colorado’s acquisitions of Cuddyer and Scutaro, the biggest upgrades any of the division’s teams made to their lineups a power-hitting prospect that will never reach his full potential playing in the Padre’s Petco Park, and Melky Cabrera, a nice player, but once again underwhelming considering the pitcher’s park he will play 81 games in for San Francisco. In fact, the Rockies may boast the best every day lineup in the division. Expect both the Diamondbacks’ and Padres’ pitching staffs to regress, and the Dodgers did not make one impactful offseason acquisition. Don’t expect any team to run away with this division. Did I mention it’s the NL West?
As we embark on the adventure that is the 2012 baseball season, Rockies fans have plenty of reason to be hopeful. The team’s upgrades, coupled with the rest of the division’s lack of movement could provide the opportunity for club to make a run at the division. With the extra wildcard being added to the mix in each league, they can at least get into a play-in game. Colorado has plenty of questions that need to be answered over the course of the season, but we have 162 games in 180 days to second guess things. Yesterday was Opening Day for the Rockies and this is the time to get excited.