Rockies banking on health to bounce back this season
Club aims to move past injury-filled 2013 campaign with new help from leadoff spot
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- How the Rockies fill in the rest of the story could determine whether 2014 has a happier ending than the last two seasons -- which ended up as last-place finishes in the National League West.
Despite that, the Rockies can and do dream of a turnaround, and they have vehicles that can take them there.
Let's assume that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez -- a pair of stars any team would envy -- avoid the team-wrecking injuries that hit them last year, and valuable hitter Michael Cuddyer follows up a batting title with another strong year. Let's also say third baseman Nolan Arenado and catcher Wilin Rosario become the young stars a team with the Rockies' payroll must have. And let's give them competent starting pitching -- something quite possible given the performance of lefty Jorge De La Rosa and righty Jhoulys Chacin last year, and the belief that lefty Brett Anderson is ready to step forward after injury-filled seasons with the Athletics.
W: Fernandez L: De La Rosa
It's a lot to assume, and the uncertainty of health and pitching are among reasons it would be a stretch to predict a contending season in the second year under manager Walt Weiss, whose team went 74-88 last year. But even if all that falls into place, the Rockies have to be complete to compete.
There's no getting around the payroll rankings. According to figures reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday, the Rockies' $93.8 million payroll ranks 17th in the Majors. The NL West has teams at No. 1 (the Dodgers, at just under $235.9 million), No. 7 (the Giants, $154.2 million) and No. 11 (the D-backs at $112.7 million).
None of that means the Rockies can't or won't compete. Health from the aforementioned players could put them in position to do just that. But what could make the difference is filling their biggest offensive hole and receiving improved work from their bullpen and their depth players, all for value.
Here's a look at how those areas are being addressed:
Leadoff batter: The Rockies dealt away Dexter Fowler and his $7.35 million salary, and used that money for first baseman Justin Morneau and some less-expensive signings.
The issue is that there isn't a proven leadoff man on the squad. For now, right-handed-hitting center fielder Drew Stubbs, who has struggled with strikeouts in the past but tantalizes as a leadoff man because of his speed, and one of two inexperienced left-handed-hitting center fielders, Corey Dickerson or Charlie Blackmon (whichever makes the team), will get first crack. Second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who has hit for average but not for on-base percentage, but is a savvy baserunner, also could be part of the mix.
"I feel there are enough options where we can mix and match and we'll have a solid leadoff hitter every day," Weiss said. "We don't have Rickey Henderson on our roster. We don't have a guy that's the prototype, but we've got guys who can handle it."
With Cuddyer, who's moving from the middle of the order to No. 2, Gonzalez and Tulowitzki the next three hitters in the order, the leadoff position has to enhance rather than hamper the productive hitters behind them. Cuddyer, whose hitting style doesn't change no matter his spot in the order, said production at the top is more important than establishing a main leadoff man.
"However it's decided, it's important to be productive at the top of the order, get on base and let everybody behind them do their thing," Cuddyer said. "There's definitely a communication factor. You like to learn who likes to steal, what counts they like to steal in, when they want to run. They want to know the counts I like swinging in and vice versa. But it's not something that has to be set in stone."
Late bullpen: The Dodgers have three former All-Star closers -- Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and Brandon League -- setting up Kenley Jansen. The Giants have Sergio Romo and an established setup crew. D-backs general manager Kevin Towers has a reputation for strong bullpens, and the Padres always pitch well in their park.
To win, the Rockies have concentrated on power arms late in the game. Veteran righty LaTroy Hawkins is the closer, although lefty Rex Brothers and righty Chad Bettis (who seems to have put everything together this spring) have closer stuff, with Brothers expected to get his opportunities early. Signing established lefty Boone Logan helps the late crew. Righty Adam Ottavino has a power slider and versatility that could play in the late innings.
If the late relievers produce like the Cardinals did last year with mostly young hurlers, the bullpen could be an area of value.
"We feel good about Bettis and what he's turning into, 'Hawk' performed well in that role [closer with the Mets] the second half of the season, and Rex was dominant last year," Weiss said. "We've got some weapons. 'Otto' matches up really well against right-handed hitters. We've got the ability to put games away."
Depth: The Rockies were relevant until then-closer Rafael Betancourt was hurt and exposed the bullpen. As the season went on, injuries to Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler gave callups a chance to play, but they proved not quite ready to win those games.
Is the depth better?
The season will tell, but the difficulty of late-spring decisions suggested there were more players than spots. Chacin will be out until anywhere from late April or the middle of May with a right shoulder injury, but righty Jordan Lyles and Franklin Morales have made the choice for replacing him difficult. Some of those who started at the end of last season could be better able to contribute off the bench.
Assuming lefty Christian Friedrich completes his comeback from a back injury, the Rockies could have three former first-round picks to call upon -- Friedrich at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and fast-rising righties Eddie Butler (2012 supplemental first round) and Jon Gray (2013 third overall) at Double-A Tulsa. Former Reds setup man Nick Masset is healthy after missing two seasons with right shoulder injuries and needs work, but he could be an option from Colorado Springs.
It's simply a deeper roster.
"We not only have a lot of options, but we have good options," Weiss said.