Reflections on the Rockies Past, Present & Future

roxLooking at the 2009 Rockies is a lot like looking at the 2008 Rockies. Only with a bit more urgency attached.

Urgency in that if these Rockies don’t get off to a solid start, Clint Hurdle may not be in charge for long.

This is Hurdle’s eighth season, and for the first time, he is managing in the last year of his contract. That, plus the fact that former Dodgers/Pirates skipper Jim Tracy is part of the coaching staff, should tell you all you need to know.

The problem for Hurdle is that urgency wasn’t necessarily felt in the front office this off-season. As you may have noticed, the Rockies traded their best player – Matt Holliday – and didn’t offer their All-Star closer – Brian Fuentes – enough money to keep him from leaving through free agency for the Los Angeles Angels.

Throw in the loss of Jeff Francis to shoulder surgery, and missing are three key performers in the Rockies’ surprising run to the 2007 NL pennant. Seems longer than 17 months ago, doesn’t it?

And other than the return package for Holliday – Huston Street, Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez (who will start the season in Triple-A) — improvement will have to come from within.

Troy Tulowitzki about to field his position (s...
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At least much more is expected from Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, both of whom suffered through injury-interrupted 2008 seasons – and the Rockies’ offense showed it.

What had been the league-leading offense in terms of on-base percentage in 2007 turned into a just-above-average, fifth-best mark in 2008. But it took more than the wide swaths of time missed by Tulo (61 games) and Helton (79 games) for the offense to fall from grace.

Garrett Atkins had a relatively down year, Willy Taveras stole 68 bases but otherwise remained miscast in Coors Field, and the revolving-door second-base situation couldn’t match Kaz Matsui’s 2007 production.

So here’s what six weeks of spring training are telling us about the 2009 season:

The good news is Helton, after working his way in slowly, has been terrific at the plate, displaying much of his old power.

Seth Smith has convinced club officials that he’s going to hit enough – nothing near Holliday-esque, but enough – to play regularly in left field.

Chris Iannetta cemented his place among the game’s top catchers with a strong World Baseball Classic showing.

Ian Stewart is forcing Hurdle to figure out ways to work him into the lineup – left field, third base, even second base. But that means there will be no room for Jeff Baker, who likely will be traded.

And Dexter Fowler’s exciting combination of skills are making the idea of him opening the season in Colorado more of a possibility (although still not likely).

The tease is this: With Fowler leading off and playing center field, the Rockies vastly upgrade their defense and speed, and deepen the bench, with Ryan Spilborghs becoming a high-quality fourth outfielder.

The risk is exposing Fowler too soon, and then having to send him back to Triple-A if he struggles at the big-league level. But at some point very soon, you’re going to see the start of the Fowler era in Coors Field.

But here’s what’s not going right, and if you think it sounds familiar, you’re correct:

Jason Marquis is the No. 3 starter behind dependable ace Aaron Cook and budding star Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Angels lit up Marquis for 10 runs in three innings the other day.

Nobody has stepped up and grabbed the fourth and fifth spots. The Rockies are counting on Jorge De La Rosa continuing to show he finally has it figured out. But the spring results haven’t been great.

Greg Smith probably will get the other spot on the strength of allowing 169 hits in 190 innings with Oakland last season, but has been slowed by two bouts of the flu this spring.

Main Entrance of Coors Field in Denver, Colorado

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And we’re still waiting for Franklin Morales (inconsistent), Jason Hirsh (injured again) and Greg Reynolds, who was sent back to minor-league camp early.

The loss of Taylor Buchholz, who emerged in a setup role last season, takes away a quality late-inning option – no matter how the closer role duel between Street and Manuel Corpas turns out. Buchholz (strained elbow ligament) is expected back in mid-May.

And the April schedule does Hurdle no favors, as the Rockies will play 11 of their first 14 games on the road.

At least there isn’t much expectation for a contending club here; and that could buy Hurdle a bit more time. Then again, another sub-.500 season isn’t exactly resume-building stuff for Hurdle or GM Dan O’Dowd, who also is in the final year of his contract, but apparently under less fire.

Projected Opening Day lineup: CF Ryan Spilborghs, LF Seth Smith, 1B Todd Helton, 3B Garrett Atkins, RF Brad Hawpe, SS Troy Tulowitzki, C Chris Iannetta, 2B Clint Barmes, P Aaron Cook

UPDATE:

The late-spring roster decisions went this way:

The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation went to Jorge De La Rosa and Franklin Morales, the latter of whom won out over Greg Smith, who is a bit behind schedule due to two spring bouts with the flu.

Dexter Fowler was kept on the Opening Day roster, and the assumption has to be that the 23-year-old will get regular at-bats. Veteran Scott Podsednik and Carlos Gonzalez, part of the Holliday trade, didn’t make the club.

Ian Stewart won a reserve spot, and at least for now, so did Jeff Baker — even though both play the same set of positions: first base, second base, third base and the corner-outfield spots. They do hit from opposite sides of the plate, and figure to be key pinch hitters.

Hard-throwing rookie Juan Morillo — out of options — will be part of the bullpen.

For more from Tony, please check him out at The Examiner and NBC Sports

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One Comment

  1. Dom

    June 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    With the recent move of Tracy replacing Hurdle, I am little concerned. No doubt that Hurdle has to take some of the blame, but this organization has many more problems in the front office.

    I like to think they have an above average farm system but too many guys in the majors that are questionable hitters. Barmes has played better then expected, Hawpe is hitting better pitches. But Atkins and Tulo are scary right now. Defense has been ok, but the pitching gets no run support.

    De Le Rosa hasn’t been all that bad, but I think they will put him in the bullpen because of his W-L record. I believe they will put Fogg in the rotation.

    Just don’t screw this one up Tracy, you have some talented young athletes on the team and in the farm system.

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