With Troy Tulowitzki out of commission for most of last year, it was easy to forget how potent the Rockies' lineup can be at full health. Now that both he and Carlos Gonzalez are healthy and in their prime, they've been torching the baseball to start the 2013 season.
Their hot starts reminded me of this article, written in Aprill of 2011 (those wonderful, carefree days) which asked the question, "Who's the best 1-2 punch in baseball?" The author came up with some alternatives to CarGo-Tulo, but did not advance an opinion one way or the other. Two years later, it's worth revisiting the topic.
First, let's see what exactly CarGo and Tulo have done since that article was written.
Of obvious note is the fact that Tulowitzki missed 115 games in 2012. He was hitting well, but not spectacularly, when he went down with a leg injury. Carlos Gonzalez had a slightly worse season with the bat in 2012 compared to 2011, but he was still 22% better than league average, according to wRC+ (which weights every offensive event and adjusts for park and league; I'll be using this metric for the rest of the article for simplicity's sake. 100 is league average). Overall, it does not appear that the duo has improved their stock since the writing of the aforementioned article. During the young 2013 season, CarGo and Tulo sport excellent wRC+ marks of 180 and 242, respectively.
Let's take a tour through the NL West to see what the most immediate competition has to offer.
The San Diego Padres would normally pencil Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin in the 3-4 spots in the lineup, but Headley is currently out with an injury. When he's back, though, he and Quentin will make for a scary 3-4. Headley produced a solid 2011 with a 121 wRC+, but he went absolutely bonkers last year, putting up a 145 mark. The triple-slash numbers (average, OBP, SLG) were pulled down somewhat by Petco Park's unforgiving offensive environment, but Headley still cracked over thirty dingers and drove in more runs than anyone else in the National League. Quentin has had his share of injuries in the last couple years as well, but when he's been on the field he has hit well; a 124 wRC+ in 2011 and a 146 mark last year. He's at 192 to start 2013.
The Arizona Diamondbacks don't have a hammered-down lineup card for their 3 and 4 spots, but they have a number of players that they stream in and out of those slots. So far in 2013, Aaron Hill and Miguel Montero have received the most starts at 3 and 4. Paul Goldschmidt has hit cleanup and Martin Prado will probably get some time in the 3-hole as well. These are all good players who hit well, but their best years have never equaled those of CarGo and Tulo. If the D-Backs still had Justin Upton things might be different, but as it stands now their 3-4 guys don't beat CarGo-Tulo.
The San Francisco Giants' 3-4 combo is rock solid. Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey are exceptional hitters and provide great value for their respective positions. Sandoval's 2011 came in at a fantastic 148 wRC+; 2012 was a bit of a step back at 115. Still, the hefty third baseman can swing the stick well. Posey, though, is the big star. If there were any questions about whether or not he would come back productive after getting demolished in a home plate collision in 2011, his 2012 put them to rest. The catcher put up a 162 wRC+ en route to a World Series title and MVP honors. Sandoval and Posey might have Gonzalez and Tulowitzki beat; it will be interesting to see how the twosomes do in 2013.
Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez take their swats from the 3 and 4 holes for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both hitters have monstrous years on their resumes. They were beasts in 2011: Kemp put up a 168 wRC+ and probably should have won MVP, while Gonzalez posted a robust 154. Kemp missed a lot of time in 2012, but hit at a 146 clip when healthy. Gonzalez, interestingly, took a fairly major step back in 2012, managing only a 115; above average, but not at the levels he had previously established. The slow moving first baseman is getting older, but at 31 he shouldn't be declining by that much. So far in 2013 he has hit very well. Based mostly on age and Kemp's streaky tendencies, I'd probably stick with CarGo-Tulo over Kemp-Gonzalez, but it's certainly a close call.
So to recap the NL West, only the Giants have a clear edge in 3-4 hitters (having the MVP will do that). Unless Sandoval balloons up to Pillsbury Doughboy proportions, they will probably out-produce the Denver duo. Los Angeles is basically a push, and Colorado has the edge over Arizona and San Diego.
Looking around the rest of the league, there are some other contenders for top 3-4 players. Detroit is obviously amazing with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The Angels boast a couple of former MVPs in Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols (although I have a suspicion that Hamilton will struggle outside of Texas, and Pujols isn't getting any younger). You could argue for Holliday-Beltran, but they're both on the wrong side of 30. Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez are a potent duo, but Ramirez just got hurt. Depending on Bryce Harper's development (which appears to be going along quite well), the Nationals might have a claim with he and Ryan Zimmerman.
There's one important fact that differentiates the Rockies' duo from all the others: Troy Tulowitzki is a shortstop. No other shortstops show up among the other great combos. This is the big edge that Colorado enjoys: they have the best player at a premium position, and the second best player isn't particularly close to him. There may be a few teams that have better 3-4 hitters than Colorado's, but the defensive abilities of Tulo and CarGo bring the duo right back up to the top of the elite.
The Rockies have a couple of special players in Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, and they can punish baseballs as effectively as anyone in the world. They're the reason why this Rockies team is dangerous, despite the disaster that was 2012. Their exploits should be fun to watch this summer.