Rockies [InsertNameHere]: Oh Heaven, It's 2011!

Good eveni

Good evening Ro

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Good evening Rowbots! It's pretty clear that I haven't done this for a while, isn't it? Far more brilliant and incisive observers than myself have already provided you with heaps and heaps of analysis about the completed 2010 season (I am told something called the Giants won the World Series. Nope, nope, not happening) and the upcoming 2011 season, so I am unsure if my humble pastiche will serve any purpose apart from to summarize and amuse. But by popular request, I'm back, and assuming a) my home Internet connection cooperates, and b) I have any extra brain cells, I will do my best to furnish the hoi polloi with my customary column capping up all the comings and goings in Rockiesland. I'm not going to promise it every week (if all goes according to plan, I will be working two jobs and going to grad school full time, which is not very conducive to maintaining my established standard of scintillating commentary) but I am determined to make an effort.

The only minor thing is that said column will no longer, per request of the new management, be called Rockies Review. Apparently there is some association with another blog we wish to avoid, so I'll officially open the floor to suggestions as to what it should be retitled. Rockies Revue? Rockies Report? Kinda boring. Super Special Sunday Silver-Rama! Yeahhhhh! *

Join me below for my, um, special take on this upcoming season.

-*- I think someone should talk me out of this one.

Even my subconscious knows it's time for baseball. Last night, I had a great dream about being in some colossal stadium filled brimful with Rockies fans, purple and silver and black everywhere. I was, I swear, actually promising them that I was going to write a column today, and everyone was very excited. I ended it by shouting, "LET'S GO ROCKIES!" to which the stadium likewise gave a mighty roar. Then I went off to watch the team picture being taken. It was, however, crashed by Ian Stewart, who -- for some reason best known to my unconscious brain -- was dressed up as a piece of puff pastry. Literally crashed, because he couldn't see where he was going and kept bouncing off the walls, while his teammates (rather uncharitably) were all dying of laughter instead of helping him out. This, very sadly, was where I woke up.

While the real world might not be nearly so entertaining at the moment, the smell of spring is definitely in the air. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camps, it's only a week until the first games start, and everyone is champing at the bit to get out there and do their best to make it, as fast as possible, a world in which the Giants are no longer the defending Series champions. (Nope, still refuse to believe it. Moving on.) Thus, this is also the time where you get all those useless stories to artificially inflate your hopes. Everyone's feeling great, everyone's ready to have their best season ever, and everyone is working on a cutter. This is, however, all taking place at the new Salt River Fields, in Scottsdale, instead of venerable old Hi Corbett in Tucson. The move to Scottsdale makes a lot of logistical sense, as only the Rockies and the D'backs (with whom they share the new complex) were still training down south, and it made for a lot of long bus rides back and forth. But to be sure, Hi Corbett has plenty of memories. There usually seems to be a good-sized contingent of fans around these parts who make the trip to 'Zona for spring training, so I'm sure we'll get the full report on how the new place looks and feels. From reports on the official site, the players themselves are very pleased with it. It was part of the plans that late team president Keli McGregor was working on before he died, and I'm sure it will do him proud.

The biggest news from the offseason certainly has to be the fact that Dick and Charlie Monfort have, to everyone but the most willfully obtuse Denver sports fans (and national commentators, but that's pretty much all of them) permanently exploded the perception that they are unwilling to open their checkbooks to keep top-flight talent in Coors. After tying up over $200 million in young studs Tulo and CarGo, the offensive core of the team looks to be set for almost a decade, and the Monforts didn't neglect the other side of the ball as well, retaining Jorge de la Rosa and Matt Belisle with market-beating deals. From my perspective, Tulo's history of missing time with injuries represents the only real concern with his contract, and it could definitely be a risk. But then, walking out your front door in the morning is a risk, and when he's healthy, there simply isn't any better shortstop in the NL (and possibly in baseball, either). A healthy Tulo is a proven commodity, and from that point of view, the Monforts will get an invaluable return. With the possible exception of Helton, Tulo is the most popular player in the franchise, and fans will shell out for his jersey, to come see him play, etc etc.

He and his partner in crime, Carlos Gonzalez, were finally rewarded as we knew they deserved all along, each scooping the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger for their theatrics last season. Both also finished in the top five in MVP voting, and if CarGo can come even close to replicating his ridiculous home production from last year, it's going to be another fun ride. (It is important to note that the Rockies did something previously thought impossible, and locked up a Scott Boras client long-term BEFORE he hit free agency.) There are also, refreshingly, no questions about either player's talent, work ethic, love for the game, and willingness to continually improve (I honestly think Tulo would rather eat nails than languish on a losing team) and no chance either that either guy is going to be found with a sleazy hooker on Colfax (I'm looking at you, Denny Neagle). It took years for the front office to recover from those debacles, which led to the perception (sometimes justified) of penny-pinching. But Colorado is, beyond any question, no longer the dumping ground where aging stars puff up their stats for a season or two, then go get another deal somewhere else. This is a team that looks, both on paper and on the field, like it can seriously compete for their first NL West title and for a pennant, and which will certainly be expected (by myself and nearly everyone here) to do just that.

And that's what brings me to my only real nitpick, the place where the guys will have to prove me wrong. No one can forget the ridiculous nonsense that ended 2010 -- just as the team looked set to make another miracle run, the wheels fell off, the carburetor went boom, and the whole thing clattered miserably back down the mountainside. I'm sure the guys haven't forgotten it either, but this team has a long-term habit of making things a lot more difficult than they really have to be. It's labored under high expectations before, and they're just going to get over whatever hangup they have about being fantastic and successful and making us all very happy and turning the Giants into midgets (still didn't happen) and otherwise supplying unicorns and pixie dust. Not that I'm thinking they'll impersonate the 1998 Yankees, but I'm definitely not going to count another third-place finish, no matter how heroically achieved, as a successful year. They have the pieces in place to do a whole lot more than that -- gone are the days when we'd hope just to end up out of the cellar. This year, I expect a playoff berth at least.

What would be my quick bullet-point list as to what I want to see improved on from 2010? Well, funny you should ask.

  • More durability from the starting rotation. They were pretty damn good when they were healthy last year, but everyone except Ubaldo (knock on wood) went down at one point or another. Fortunately, I think our spot starters and pitching depth is of a better quality than last year, but anyone that relies on filler guys to pick up a fifth of the starts is asking for trouble. Jeff Francis is gone to the Royals (good lord, why do we have to play them AGAIN in interleague??? Why does MLB find this such a can't-miss matchup???) and Jason Hammel received a new two-year tender, along with of course JDLR's three-year pact, so more or less, the rotation is the same as it was. Everyone is expecting Uball to provide a worthy followup to his breakout 2010, a task at which he looks to be happily capable, but we can't have one horse pulling the entire cart again. Also, while I am optimistic about young Jhoulys Machacine, I don't know that I trust him as a full-year, every-fifth-day starter. He still has plenty of control issues to work out, IMHO. But conversely, if Aaron Cook is finally healthy again, we could be in for a pleasant surprise along the lines of his first-half 2008. (But for the love of God, can we please please please not send any of our pitchers to the All-Star Game? Or have them go, but not pitch?)
  • While on the topic of pitching, Huston Street needs to find his form again. Way too many games either got away late, were made far too interesting, or caused things thrown through computer screens and television monitors as a result of Street's weeble-wobbles in 2010. (Huston, we have a problem. Yes, you knew that was coming.) It was occasionally Fuentes Redux, which was really not fun. Getting three outs doesn't feel like much in, say, the sixth inning, but get to the ninth in a one-run game, and suddenly you're sweating bullets, Street is walking half the other team's roster, and you need a bucket of Xanax by the time that foolery is over. One of the most enduring debates among baseball fans is always the Closer Question, i.e. should you be paying one bullpen guy a lot more than his peers to pitch one inning a game, but I tend to come down on the "yes" side of this one. 
  • Speaking of one-run games.... the Rockies sure played a lot of them last year. To a large part, this is just blind luck (or bad luck) but they just need to get used to the idea that this is going to be the case, and do something about it. Don't look at me, look at them.
  • Road production. Road production. Road production. So important I said it three times. There have been plenty of well-informed articles written as to why the Rockies tend to show such drastic splits away from Coors (and plenty of totally moronic ones) but the fact remains that by any metric you care to employ, they were unquestioningly abysmal away from home last year. Winning a pennant is not going to happen if you can't hit water after falling out of a boat (tm Crash Davis) in half your games. Obviously, the Rockies may always suffer some kind of handicap in this regard, as the altitude at Coors is not getting any lower, but there is definitely no reason to think that they can't do better. And it'll have to happen.
  • Finding someone to bat behind the Terrible Two-Headed Hydra of CarGo and Tulo. CarGo is slotted firmly in the three-hole, and Tulo in cleanup, but for all the nightmares that they're going to give opposing pitchers, there still has to be someone in the five-spot that means you can't just twinkletoes around them. The puff pastry (er, Ian Stewart) is always a plain power threat, but he's not what you'd call consistent; he's equally as likely (perhaps more so) to dramatically strike out than he is to make contact. A rejuvenated Helton may contribute more than last year, but the Toddfather, bless his heart, is getting old. The answer may lie in the newly signed Jose Lopez, who had 96 RBI last year (nothing to sneeze at) and has said that he feels more comfortable hitting with men on base. Rowbots?
  • One less noticeable move that we nonetheless should not overlook is the replacement of the hitting coach, as Don Baylor is out the door and Carney Lansford is in. Baylor certainly has history with the club, but last year, I feel, was a definite backslide for the offense. "When in doubt, swing" as an offensive philosophy was much too prevalent, and tons of strikeouts, an utter inability to get guys in from third base with less than two outs, and weak ground balls in high-leverage situations seemed to be the general result. According to the Post, Lansford has already identified a few flaws in Stewart and Iannetta's mechanics that, if corrected, could provide a HUGE boost to our run production. Ian and Chris are both plenty capable of high home run totals, but that's not what we need in every situation. In fact, that's a lesson the whole roster could take, as they tend to swing for the fences instead of playing plain ol' situational baseball.
  • In that vein: Finding a leadoff guy who can get on base. CarGo, of course, is wasted at the top of the lineup, and while Dexter Fowler might be the default answer, he is still currently in Willy Taveras mode: he'd be unstoppable if he could just steal first.
  • Less tinkering from Jim Tracy. He was better about this in his first year at the helm, as the players all said that his set roles were a relief after Hurdle's endless shuffling. But Tracy himself fell prey to a lot of that last year, trotting out different lineups every day and seemingly playing musical chairs with the bullpen. Obviously, if things aren't working, the manager has to find some way to make it do so if he wants to keep his job, but some days the guys would score 12 runs and there would still be another lineup the next day. I think Tracy was more consciously trying to "manage" last year, instead of sitting back and letting things progress as they did in 2009, but we were definitely doing a lot more critiquing of his micro-managing. Of course, sports fans have been armchair GMs since the beginning of time, and we'll still be henpecking the guy he puts in during the seventh inning with two outs, two guys on, a left-handed batter at the plate, and etc, but I think Tracy needs to let go the reins to a certain extent. Easy for me to say, I know.

  • All in all,however, I feel that the pieces are in place for another exciting year. And if nothing else, you know for sure that it will be that. Where else can you find a team that does stuff like pull off a 9-run comeback in the 9th inning, and has CarGo hit a walkoff homer to complete a cycle against the Cubs? I'm sure this is only my purple-colored glasses talking, but I can't think of another team that is so consistently exciting (and, on the other side of the coin, exasperating) as the Rockies. Another thing I should mention is the need for Chris Iannetta to finally, finally seize the starting catcher job -- it's literally been lying in his lap for the past couple seasons, but he's always managed to fumble it away. (Guess he needs Suzy's Oven Mitts. Bazam.) Of course, you never should expect the backstop to be a premium offensive position, and Iannetta will more or less earn his chops if he handles the pitching staff adroitly, but you can't have him hitting sub-Mendoza and grounding out all the time at the bottom of the lineup, either. The Rockies have made a commitment to him time and time again, so he's not going to be at leisure to keep doing this forever.

    Yet as I said, I'm very excited for the circus to start. I find myself actually missing Denver a lot, just in terms of the fact that I can't go to games. (However, I'm planning on coming back to town for a few days in May, in order to attend my older sister's college graduation, and I am bound and determined to make a game then. Anyone wanna come with?) I'm also excited to get back to working for the Tourists this year, as it should be a fun season in Asheville as well, and I'll keep a lookout for any stories and experiences that would make a good column. I seem to recall that both my columns last year that discussed the highs and lows of minor-league life were very well received, so I'll provide what I can. Without getting anyone fired, of course.

    That's all for me this time. But in the meanwhile...

    Let's....
    GO.....
    ROCKIES!!!!!!!
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