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Past & Present: Paradigm shift

The NL West has not played out as expected, which has left the door open and changed how the Rockies are approaching the 2013 season.

The Rockies have been shaking hands on the field more often than people expected them to in 2013.
The Rockies have been shaking hands on the field more often than people expected them to in 2013.
Justin Edmonds

Oh, how things can change in a short amount of time.

As the 2013 season dawned, most people reasonably assumed the Rockies would not be a contender, or even above .500. In a preseason article, I said 74 wins would be a reasonable goal for the 2013 Rockies.

It wasn't difficult to see why fans and pundits were less than excited about the Rockies' chances this year. They were coming off the worst season in team history in 2012, and weren't anything to write home about when they posted a 73-89 record in 2011. The only big changes were the addition of Walt Weiss, a first-year manager with no prior professional coaching experience, and returning players who missed time in 2012 due to injury. One analyst, whose identity and employer shall remain nameless, picked the Rockies to go 53-109 in 2013.

Additionally, there seemed to be two superpowers in the National League West, the defending champion Giants and the uber-rich Dodgers, who added Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to a team that won 86 games in 2012. It was taken for granted that Los Angeles and San Francisco would fight for the division title in 2013 while running away from the Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies.

But then something interesting happened. The Giants' vaunted starting rotation, which led them to two of the last three championships, suddenly looked mortal. As I write this, Matt Cain's ERA is only slightly better than Jon Garland's, and their defense went to shambles; their 35 errors are currently second-most in the NL.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have been a train wreck, almost from day one. Greinke broke his collarbone in a brawl with the Padres. Since then, L.A. is just 12-23. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, among others, aren't hitting and Chad Billingsley is out for the season.

Farther east, the Rockies finally have Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki healthy at the same time, and the pair have combined to hit 20 home runs. More importantly, the starting pitching, historically bad in 2012, has been solid, if unspectacular.

This all adds up to a three-way tie for first, with the Rockies, Giants and Diamondbacks each sitting at 26-21. The Dodgers are in last place at 19-26, six games behind the division leaders and the Padres sit in fourth at 21-25.

The current outlook in the NL West has changed the thinking of Colorado's brass, which has exhibited clear signs that it intends to try to contend and maintain the 90-win pace the team is currently on. Going into the season, the team likely, and understandably, had an eye toward the future. But, with the early success, the focus has changed to trying to win in the present.

The first, and most significant sign that the Rockies view themselves as able to compete in 2013, came the night of April 27, when the Rockies designated Chris Nelson for assignment and called up Nolan Arenado from Colorado Springs.

A team that thought its 15-9 record at the time was a fluke surely would not have risked making Arenado a super-two player to get him a few weeks of MLB at bats. No, the Rockies clearly thought it was important to have the best player playing right now, and that the best player was Arenado.

A few days later, the Rockies signed Roy Oswalt. Yes, they acquired veteran pitchers during the 2012 season (Jonathan Sanchez, anyone?), but none were the caliber of Oswalt. If he makes a start with the big club, Oswalt will become arguably the most successful pitcher to ever don the purple pinstripes.

Oswalt's 5.80 ERA with Texas in 2012 was underwhelming, but was aided by some atrocious BABIP and HR/FB luck. Oswalt actually posted a 4.23 FIP and a 3.27 xFIP last year, the latter of which is right in line with his career numbers. Surely the team would not have been interested in Oswalt, nor he interested in them, if both parties didn't think the Rockies could contend in 2013.

We saw another sign that the Rockies view themselves as contenders last night when they optioned Josh Rutledge to AAA. If the team was staring down the barrel of a 75-win season, it would have been much more likely to let Rutledge work out his issues at the major league level. But, with the club on a 90-win pace, it made the decision it thought would help win the most games, which was keeping DJ LeMahieu's bat in the lineup.

If the Rockies had been playing to preseason expectations, and/or if the Giants and Dodgers were running away with the division as predicted, the Rockies may have made a different decision in one or all of the previous three situations. But things have changed and the Rockies have gone from viewing 2013 as a rebuilding year to viewing it as a year in which they can return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

This is not to necessarily say that the Rockies will remain a contender throughout the season, but that the team's actions since Opening Day, both on and off the field, indicate that contending is a real possibility. Not many, if any, people would have said that before the season started.

In the NL West in 2013, the paradigm has shifted distinctly in the Rockies' favor, and they are looking to take advantage of it.