Philadelphia, PA – Still in search of the first division title in franchise history, the Colorado Rockies are hoping some new faces can make that happen in 2012.
Aspirations of a National League West crown were shortlived last season following a promising 16-7 start and the Rockies folded from May on. MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez regressed from his dominant 2010 campaign, starter Jorge De La Rosa was lost for the season early on and may not be ready until June and the pitching staff in general struggled.
De La Rosa, projected to be the staff's ace, suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow during a May 24 game against Arizona and needed Tommy John surgery to correct the problem. The Rockies are taking their time with the southpaw and will not try to rush him back to the mound. De La Rosa signed a two-year contract with Colorado prior to the 2011 season, with an option for 2013, and is optimistic on a healthy return.
"The offseason was good," De La Rosa said. "I wasn't a part of the end of the season, so I was already here and I just stayed here working with trainers and the conditioning guys and [my elbow] feels much better now."
He also added, "I think I could be ready in May, but they'll probably want me to spend some time in the minors to make sure I'm ready."
Colorado will need a reliable ace in the rotation with De La Rosa's current status and after trading former staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland last season. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin took over as the most reliable arm in 2011 and led the Rockies in wins (11), earned run average (3.62) and strikeouts (150). Chacin is counting on duplicating last season's effort save the 14 losses in a career-high 31 starts. Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd was busy this offseason and brought in some new talent, including starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie in a deal with Baltimore.
Pitchers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom were sent to the Orioles for Guthrie, a right-hander who has struggled in recent years and was named Opening Day starter. The right-hander has a healthy mix of pitches, but hasn't recorded a mark above .500 since going 7-5 in 2007. He went 9-17 in 34 games (32 starts) last year to go along with a 4.33 ERA. The Rockies are hoping a change of scenery will help Guthrie.
O'Dowd also landed coveted free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer to the tune of $31.5 million over three years. Cuddyer brings pop to a lineup that already has Gonzalez, All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and the aging Todd Helton.
"We are looking for the right kind of players. But we don't have this belief anymore that anything we're going to add from outside the organization is going to change the issues that we have from inside the organization. Our players internally have to make their minds up they're going to change that," O'Dowd said in response to what type of culture the new players will bring.
"And everybody is on the same page with that. Everybody clearly understands that. All the conversations that have needed to be had have been had. We've had them all winter long."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy is usually good with keeping egos and personalities at an even keel and is facing his toughest challenge yet.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Rockies, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (73-89) - Fourth Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF Michael Cuddyer, 3B Casey Blake, C Ramon Hernandez, SP Jeremy Guthrie, SP Tyler Chatwood, SS Marco Scutaro, OF Tyler Colvin, SP Jamie Moyer
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF/INF Ty Wigginton, C Chris Iannetta, RP Huston Street, 3B Ian Stewart, OF Seth Smith, SP Jason Hammel, SP Matt Lindstrom, SP Aaron Cook, 2B Mark Ellis, SP Kevin Millwood, OF Ryan Spilborghs
PROJECTED LINEUP: CF Dexter Fowler, 2B Marco Scutaro, LF Carlos Gonzalez, SS Troy Tulowitzki, RF Michael Cuddyer, 1B Todd Helton, C Ramon Hernandez, 3B Casey Blake
PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP Jeremy Guthrie, RHP Jhoulys Chacin, LHP Drew Pomeranz, RHP Juan Nicasio, RHP Guillermo Moscoso
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Rafael Betancourt
MANAGER: Jim Tracy
CAN THE ROCKIES' LINEUP COMPETE IN THE NL WEST?
One would believe Colorado has one of the top lineups in the NL West with Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, Helton and now Cuddyer, but the club lost a few bats in Ian Stewart, Seth Smith, Ty Wigginton, Mark Ellis and Chris Iannetta. On paper the Rockies have a better lineup than division-rivals San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona, and that won't mean much when the season commences. Gonzalez still had a productive campaign in 2011 with 26 homers, 92 RBI, 92 runs and a .295 batting average -- one year after an MVP-type 2010 season in which he recorded 34 homers, 111 runs, 117 RBI and a .336 average. Colorado must not get greedy with CarGo because he's been one of the best in the National League the last two years. Several feel Tulowitzki deserves that distinction and he takes care of business with both his bat and glove. Tulowitzki enjoyed a splendid season last year with 30 homers and 105 RBI and a .302 average. He has belted at least 27 homers in each of the past three seasons and reached the 100 mark in runs batted in for the first time in his career. Tulowitzki could easily take home an MVP award in 2012 barring injury. Colorado hopes Helton can hold up for the grind and the durable first baseman has worn purple pin stripes since the 1997 season. The addition of Cuddyer could soften the blow if Helton has an unproductive season and the former Twin adds a solid dimension to the lineup. Many clubs were after Cuddyer's services and the Rockies came out on top. Hopefully, he holds up his side of the deal and make the Rockies a contender again. Dexter Fowler, Jason Giambi and newcomer Casey Blake will provide clutch hitting and fielding in the background.
HOW WILL COLORADO'S ROTATION/BULLPEN PERFORM IN 2012?
It's known De La Rosa won't be back any time soon and it's anyone's guess how productive he will be when that happens. The Rockies are alright with Chacin, who is coming off a solid campaign, but the remainder of the rotation has plenty of question marks. How will Guthrie fare in the National League? With no Aaron Cook, Jason Hammel and Kevin Millwood, will Alex White and Drew Pomeranz make a name for themselves? White and Pomeranz were acquired from the Indians in exchange for Jimenez last season, while Tyler Chatwood landed in the Rocky Mountains via trade from Anaheim for Iannetta. Juan Nicasio displayed flashes of dominance in his 13 starts a season ago and the Rockies gave veteran Jamie Moyer a shot with a minor league deal. Moyer cracked the majors while some of the Rockies weren't even born yet. While the rotation may be the weal link to Colorado's success, the bullpen could save a game or two for the ballclub. Huston Street took his closing duties to the Padres in place of the departed Heath Bell and now it's up to Rafael Betancourt to maintain that dominance. While Street led the Rockies last season with 29 saves in 62 games, Betancourt saw action in 68 contests and posted eight saves in that period. A lot is riding on Betancourt in 2012 and he proved he can handle the load by being a reliable set-up man. Betancourt converted 8-of-9 saves when Street suffered an arm injury and posted a microscopic 0.33 ERA after the All- Star break. Relievers Matt Belisle, Rex Brothers, Matt Reynolds, Edgmer Escalona and Esmil Rogers are top prospects to set the table for Betancourt. Rogers, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman have experience as both starters and relievers, and will make the rotation even more difficult to finalize.
WHAT CAN ROX EXPECT FROM NEWCOMERS CUDDYER, BLAKE?
Cuddyer should fit in nicely in his new digs and is known to be the ultimate teammate. Jim Thome even tried bringing Cuddyer over to Philadelphia this offseason, but the gritty slugger opted to go west. Cuddyer can play both the outfield and infield, and finished his 2011 campaign with Minnesota batting .284 with 20 homers, 70 runs and 70 RBI. In order to complement the likes of Gonzalez, Helton and Tulowitzki, Colorado went shopping this offseason and spent plenty of cash on Cuddyer, Blake, Ramon Hernandez and Marco Scutaro. Giambi has made the transition for Cuddyer a lot easier by helping him along much like the way Helton and Tulowitzki did for him a few years ago. Cuddyer should fit right in with his new teammates, while Blake is hoping to stay healthy in order to produce. Blake spent his last four years with the rival Dodgers and appeared in just 63 games a season ago, collecting just four homers and 26 RBI to go along with a .252 batting average. Blake is known for flashing the leather on the hot corner as well. The Rockies finished third in the NL with 735 runs scored, fourth in slugging percentage at .410, and third in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .739 last year.
X-FACTOR: JHOULYS CHACIN: All eyes will be on Tulowitzki and Gonzalez for what they bring to both the field and the batter's box. The same goes with Cuddyer, who will surely try to make a good first impression with his new club. Chacin, however, has to step up his game since he'll be the "ace" of the staff until De La Rosa is ready to return. Chacin hasn't recorded a winning record in any of his three seasons in the big leagues and made a career-high 31 starts in 2011. The right-hander has good stuff as evidenced by his 130-plus strikeouts in each of the previous two seasons. He did finish last season with four straight losses, but is hoping a solid Spring Training will carry over into the new campaign. Remember, Chacin will be the backbone of the rotation unless one of the younger guys steps up and Guthrie thrives in the Senior Circuit.
The Rockies have missed the playoffs in each of the past two years and it appears 2012 will be the third. Granted the Rockies are talented at the plate, but question marks surround the pitching aspect. The bullpen is average at best and Betancourt will take over as the new closer. There's plenty of experience on the roster with Tulowitzki, Helton and Giambi, and all three can help both the new and young faces get acclimated in the majors. Cuddyer said his teammates have embraced him and the slugging veteran feels right at home in his new surroundings. Losing is something Cuddyer has been used to with the Twins whether it was in the regular season or playoffs recently, and unfortunately he'll miss out on another chance to make a World Series run.