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Rockies Review: The draco dormiens is poked in the oculus

Yoohoo there, Rowbots! The dust is being brushed off, the machinery is firing up, and the 2010 baseball season is checking its parachute and ready to hit the drop doors. Of course, it won't start with nearly as much a bang as we would like, as we still have to get through all those days of B-team workouts, "best shape of my life" stories, and fearless prognostications about how the Dodgers are the runaway favorites to win the West. But the fact remains that at the time of this writing, pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Tucson in 3 days, 19 hours, and 5 minutes. This will be the last year at venerable Hi Corbett before the Rockies depart for more conveniently located pastures, but it's only 18 days until they play their first spring training game -- March 4 against the Diamondbacks, 1:05 pm. I can only imagine the rush to the radio that the purple faithful will execute, and how much it will finally begin to feel like summer again when we hear the crack of the bat, the snap of the ball, the sound of Clint Barmes hitting a popup and Greg Smith tearing something.

The Rockies have had a fairly quiet offseason. No splashy moves like trading for Roy Halladay. Nonetheless, they've taken steps to retain and improve their NL Wild-Card winning unit, and have good reason to believe that they can get the decade started off right in 2010. Wanna get back up to speed on why that is, and what we have to look forward to? Join me after the jump.

2009 was, as we know, an exciting, dramatic, and ultimately heartbreaking year, but the Rockies are well-poised to take some lasting lessons. After Clint Hurdle was fired after captaining the team into a 18-28 hole, Jim Tracy took over and never looked back. The Rockies went 74-42 under Tracy's stewardship, finishing 92-70 with a Wild Card berth, and offered the Manager of the Year a three-year contract that will keep him in purple pinstripes through 2012. Now that Tracy's resuscitated a talented but inconsistent franchise from the moribund to the miraculous, the onus is on him to avoid one of the famously slow starts with which the club is notorious for handicapping itself. April and May just don't seem to exist to them, and if the team is going to live up to the high standards that it set for itself, they are going to have to shed that mindset posthaste. After all, 2008 was... well, let's not talk about 2008. The team has been in this position before, and is going to have to prove that it can sustain success. No longer in the class of the Pirates and Reds after making the postseason in two of the past three years, the Rockies may be (as Peter Gammons points out) one of the most underrated outfits in the NL. But only if they put some notches in the win column in April and May. Playing catch-up is all very well and good, and of course they came oh-so-close to erasing a 15-game deficit in Game 161 against the Dodgers, but for once it would be nice to be the pace car.

How are they going to do this? Let's take a look.

The pitching staff is largely intact -- Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge de la Rosa, and Jason Hammel will be handling duties as before, but the return of Jeff Francis is going to be heavily scrutinized. Sliding into Jason Marquis' vacated spot, Francis is obviously eager to contribute and re-achieve his 17-game-winner form, but a torn labrum is a dicey injury to return from and he wasn't exactly lighting up the radar gun beforehand. (Then again, it may work in his favour: Francis is a control pitcher and doesn't need to rely on a blazing fastball to get guys out). After missing all of 2009, Francis has something to prove and his resurgence is probably the chief storyline for the front five. The other is how and whether Ubaldo will continue to develop into one of the NL's premier hurlers. He's always possessed filthy stuff, but keeps being prone to the odd stinker where he'll walk the opposing team's roster. He also needs to start fast, as he had a problem with the first inning last year. While these are mostly nitpicks, and the team is certainly capable of doing great things without a Cy Young season from U-ball, it would sure be nice if we got one. (And a pony).

The bullpen is looking more stable to open the season than it has in years, plus more defined: we know exactly who's going to throw what innings, and there isn't going to be one of those silly "competitions" for the closer. Both Huston Street and Rafael Betancourt were re-signed (Street for three years, RafBet for two) and will be counted on to replicate their production from last year (aside from Street's hijinks in the NLDS). Huston held opposing batters to a .194 average while converting 35 of 37 regular-season save ops, and Betancourt compiled a 1.78 ERA as a lights-out setup man. The departure of Joe Beimel may leave Frankie Morales as the chief lefty, which is something of a frightening prospect -- Morales can be flat dominant or flat dreadful. (Hopefully, more of the former than the latter). Randy Flores is also theoretically slated to take on LOOGY duties. Don't suck, Randy.

The pen could also be bolstered if Manny Corpas and Taylor Buchholz make successful returns from injury -- Manny if he gets his crap together for the first time since 2007, and Taylor if he repeats 2008 and his 2.17 ERA. The Rockies also have a lot of intriguing pitching prospects hanging around in the wings -- Casey Weathers, Christian Friedrich, and of course the Machine, Jhoulys Chacin, who will be hoping for a longer look-see after an uneven debut last year. First-round '09 draft pick Tyler Matzek is also projected as a guy who could make a meteoric ascent through the Minors, and while I wouldn't count on seeing him this year, it's not out of the question that he could pull an '11 spring training invite. Assuming no injuries or Matt Bush-esque shooting of self in foot. Knock on wood.

The infield retains the same starting four -- Stewart, Tulowitzki, Barmes, and Helton, with Garrett Atkins departed to the Orioles and Stewart acquiring a new backup in Melvin Mora (who, coincidentally, departed FROM the Orioles). It's time for Stewart to stop striking out so damn much and hitting something apart from home runs (although those are nice, Ian, don't get us wrong). He's never quite approached the levels that were projected for him, and having a full season of being the starter may help sort out whether he's never going to get there or if he's finally going to take that next step. Personally, I feel as if Stewart's never going to be the MVP-caliber third-sacker we thought, but that doesn't mean he isn't a good young player.

Helton is Helton, Barmes is Barmes (how about a couple fewer popouts, k Clint? Thxbai!) and Tulo is Tulo, who by now can easily claim the mantle of the team's best player. Entering his age 25 season after a year in which he finished fifth in the NL MVP race, Tulo has matured, gotten married, and (one hopes) prepared himself to finally show up in the first two months of the season. It really goes to show you how he's the heartbeat of this club, as his nonexistence last April and May coincided with the team's stumbling start. If Tulo hits all year like he did after the break (.344 AVG, .421 OBP, .622 SLG) then the rest of the West has good cause to tremble in fear. And when the hell is the man going to win a damn Gold Glove? Jeez.

Behind the dish, fan favorite Yorvit Torrealba has departed for the Padres after a terrific stretch run last year (probably the best he ever was for us, aside from that homer in Game 3 of the 2007 NLCS) and Chris Iannetta, like Stewart, is also going to have a chance to show what he can do over a full year as the starter. The team enlisted the services of ex-Royal Miguel Olivo to be the backup backstop, and while Olivo represents a significant upgrade in the power department (23 homers last year) he also paired that with a .292 OBP. Think Willy T, but fatter. Ouch. Nonetheless, if Iannetta does what he did in 2008, that's going to be a significant amount of boom from a generally non-boom position. Olivo is also much better at throwing out runners than Torrealba, so maybe we can finally nail Juan Pierre a few times this year. Man I hate Juan Pierre.

The outfield is also more or less the same -- overcrowded -- with Jim Tracy's chief challenge to find playing time for Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez, Seth Smith, Ryan Spilborghs, and Brad Hawpe. Fowler and Gonzalez represent a potential dynamic duo, and if CarGo can get back into the saddle right away and keep hitting like he was in the latter half of last year, he has a good shot to join the 20/20 club. Dex has blinding speed but is still adjusting to the major league hitting curve, Seth Smith is everybody's favorite but might wear out, as Spilly did, with everyday exposure; nonetheless, he's dynamite as a pinch-hitter and will have opportunities to play late-inning hero along with Jason Giambi, who returned to the Rox on a one-year contract. Spilly will hopefully provide more 14th-inning glorious walkoff grand slams against the Giants, but figures in as super-sub and occasional spot starts.

The real enigma here is Brad Hawpe. After turning in an All-Star first half, he sucked out loud in the second, and has shown no signs of finally kicking the streakiness that's dogged him throughout his entire career. His defense is highly suspect in any case, and while he may still have a rocket arm, that doesn't assuage the pain of seeing him dive for a ball and turn a single into a triple. Nonetheless, he appears to be installed into the lineup with superglue, and while he's still a power hitter, the fact that the lights can go out for weeks at a time will lead to questions about whether Tracy is going to recognize this and make the appropriate substitutions.

All in all, however, the team looks pretty damn good -- on paper. The expectations are there, the past success is there. There aren't any gaping holes or unanswered questions. Injuries can, of course, ravage the best-laid plans in a heartbeat (just ask the 2009 Mets) and there's always the likelihood of an underwhelming season from one or more key components. But as anyone will tell you, that's why they play the games.



What are you expecting from the 2010 Rockies?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    A World Series title! Nothing else will do.
    (53 votes)
  • 12%
    I'd like another league championship, yeah.
    (41 votes)
  • 53%
    I just want that NL West title. I'll worry about the playoffs later.
    (182 votes)
  • 5%
    Another Wild Card. As long as we get to the big dance, that's fine.
    (19 votes)
  • 0%
    Finishing ahead of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
    (2 votes)
  • 12%
    (41 votes)
338 votes total Vote Now