Thursday Rockpile: Chris Nelson, Rockies, figure out how Coors Field works, now comes the tricky part

DENVER, CO - APRIL 18: Starting pitcher Juan Nicasio #44 of the Colorado Rockies works the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres at Coors Field on April 18, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. Nicasio earned the win as the Rockies went on the defeat the Padres 8-4. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Last night the Rockies concluded a narrowly successful 5-4 opening homestand. The good news might be that thus far, the team's success has come without large contributions from their best players, as both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have been putting up uncharacteristically bland and at times ugly performances, and has been noted extensively, the rotation has been largely a farce. Instead, the Rockies have been relying on a stellar bullpen and the offense of "utility" players. The uberest utility player, Michael Cuddyer, leads the team in hits by a wide margin. He's tied for the team lead in RBI and runs scored. So far, so good on that offseason signing.

It might be surprising to some, however, to see that the Rockies player with the second most hits 12 games into 2012 is third baseman Chris Nelson, particularly since he didn't get his first knock until the team's fifth game. It also might be surprising to those who remember how abysmal the Rockies bench was last season, batting .211/.294/.282, to see them on top of the National League in offensive contribution from subs in 2012 with a .346/.452/.538 line. Between the early contributions of Nelson, and players like Eric Young Jr., Jonathan Herrera and Tyler Colvin, the Rockies have somehow scratched out their .500 record in 2012.

Now, however, the Rockies go back on the road against a pair of NL Central teams in what could be a critical early test for the club. While Nelson and company seemed to get into the groove of hitting at Coors over the homestand, their careers away from Denver have not been so pleasant. If there's a recipe for success for the Rockies this year, it would most likely be a combination of the team treading water early and then maturing and getting reinforced into a team capable of making a late season run. What could hold the Rockies back from the first part of that goal, of just staying close enough to make the late dash, would be a couple of disastrous early road trips. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are both decent home teams themselves, which adds to the challenge.

One thing's for certain is that the Rockies should avoid trying to model this or any future team off of the 2009 playoff team that had a sub .400 April. In analyzing April records, Andrew Mooney shows how much an outlier that Rockies team was, and finds that a team's winning percentage in the first month is actually fairly significant in projecting the rest of the season.

Michael Cuddyer's bruised toe doesn't figure to keep him out of the lineup for long, if at all. Word of warning to Jim Tracy: Cuddyer's willingness to play through pain in Minnesota proved a detriment to himself and the team at times, so don't necessarily take the player's word that he's ready to go.

A couple of notes of what else to watch for as the road trip starts Friday after the jump.

"OFF TOPIC"

Troy Tulowitzki's poor fielding in the homestand has gotten inside the shortstop's head a bit, so it will be interesting to see how he responds after a couple of days off when the series in Milwaukee commences.

The Rockies optioning Tyler Chatwood to AAA with the purpose of shifting him to a starting role is clearly a reactionary move to the struggles of the rotation early in the season. What's not so readily clear at the moment is the current starter that he or another member of the Sky Sox rotation would replace when called up. If we eliminate Jamie Moyer and Juan Nicasio from consideration for being at least somewhat effective early on, that leaves Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz and Jeremy Guthrie as potential targets.

Since both Chacin and Pomeranz can get sent back to the minors and Guthrie can't, they are the likely choices to get cut. Pomeranz has only one 2012 Coors Field start under his belt, and as reactionary and impulsive as the front office can be at times, they haven't shown that they are that extreme with star prospects. No, narrowing it down logically, it would seem that Chacin is the starter most in the crosshairs and in danger of losing his spot. If his struggles continue into his next couple of starts, including tomorrow night's to start the road trip, I would not be surprised to see Chatwood, Alex White or Christian Friedrich called up to replace him.

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