Rockies Preview 2012: It's go time, boys
As the subjective, affected, and biased reporter I truly am, I find myself wanting to root for the Rockies at the beginning of each season. There’s a whole lot about the clean-cut, good guy, lack of Kardashian-Humphries-esque tabloid drama, and simply wholesome aura surrounding the club that attracts me. Unfortunately, that puppy dog love can only last as long as the Rockies last. When they win, there’s no better feeling than watching guys who play the game of life the right way have success. But when they lose, they make a front office that doesn’t take risks and a squad full of guys without a winning fire in their eyes look pretty foolish. The latter is where the Rockies stand entering the 2012 season. Although there’s plenty of fresh faces and no shortage of veteran leadership, the underperformance of this year’s team would be an even worse gut-punch than last season. If the supposed positional improvements Colorado acquired, many of whom are 28 or older, do not have stellar years, then GM Dan O’Dowd needs to look out. If that happens, the Rockies are at serious risk of disappointing again and losing a fan base that never had much interest anyway.
For the Rockies pitching staff, the blunt truth is that this off season was more about quantity than quality. After inexplicably shipping off Ubaldo Jimenez last summer, the Rockies acquired Jeremy Guthrie, Josh Outman, Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso, and Zach Putnam to augment a pitching staff that had a 4.43 ERA in 2011 (fifth worst in the MLB). It is difficult to make judgments on many of these pitchers because they are unproven. However, the mere fact that these pitchers are unproven comes as a concern to many Rockies fans. Chatwood, Moscoso, Outman, and Putnam all have three seasons or less of experience, and it might be difficult for them to find their proper niches in the rotation or bullpen. It is Moscoso who seems to have the largest upside of the group. The 28 year-old notched a 3.38 ERA in 23 starts with Oakland last season, while keeping a low 1.09 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). However, with only one full season as a starter on his resume, who knows how he will fare against seasoned NL West hitters in a hitter-friendly park. Guthrie, 32, is more of a known quantity. He pitched more than 200 innings each of the last three seasons for the Orioles, which is a good omen. The Rockies will need him to eat innings during his starts, especially early in the season as the bullpen finds its identity. However, Guthrie has never recorded an ERA under 3.7 or more than 123 strikeouts in any season. He also has only one winning season (2007) in his entire eight-season career. Last year, he gave up 26 home runs, fourth-most in the American League. In the realm of statistics, these (especially that last one) are much more meaningful than the number of innings pitched. The Rockies can, and should, expect quality pitching from Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio throughout the season. Nicasio has recovered miraculously from a broken neck sustained late last season and should be ready to build on last year’s 1.98 home ERA and 58 strikeouts in 13 starts. While Drew Pomeranz is nothing spectacular, Jorge De La Rosa’s return (which pitching coach Bob Apodaca predicts will be in July) from Tommy John surgery will be key. If the Rockies are anywhere near contention in the NL West or Wild Card race by then, De La Rosa could be that solid starter the Rockies need in order to make a late-season run. Overall, anything better than mediocrity from the pitching staff would be a blessing this season--and if Colorado’s core of young arms can pitch to their potential, the Rockies can hope for an improvement on the atrocity that was 2011.
Assuming the newly acquired infield veterans don’t get hurt, superb defense should continue to be a hallmark of the club. Despite Ian Stewart’s departure, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Dexter Fowler will anchor a defense that is perennially in the Top-10 in the MLB in fielding percentage. Last season Colorado finished at .984, seventh in baseball.
Out of all the storylines concerning the Rockies this season, the most interesting is that of the offense and the not-so-young faces Colorado brought in to give it a lift. The situation with the position players could go one of two ways: (1) The veterans will hit well enough and provide enough leadership to the young players that the Rockies can dig themselves out of holes throughout the season, and (2) The veterans are past their primes and this team once again becomes the Troy Tulowitzki-and-Carlos Gonzalez show (aka, the third-or-fourth-place-in-the-NL West-show). The three position players that the fate of the Rockies’ lineup hinges on are Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, and Fowler. Cuddyer and Scutaro, two offseason acquisitions who will gobble up a total of $50 million for their three-year contracts, will need to produce in the second and sixth spots in the order. If Fowler and Scutaro can set the table for Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, and if Cuddyer can improve on his 70-RBI performance from last season, the Rockies actually could have a potent offense. In other words, they could provide the run support that a young pitching staff so desperately needs. Colorado also hopes 38 year-old Casey Blake, another offseason buy, can be a solid everyday third baseman. This is doubtful, considering he only played 63 games for the Dodgers last season and his batting average has been at .250 or below the past two seasons. Jordan Pacheco and Wilin Rosario could provide manager Jim Tracy with a powerful young catching tandem. Pacheco was impressive in his 21 games for the Rockies last season, knocking in 14 runs and hitting .286. What hangs over the Rockies like a rare March stormcloud at their spring training complex in Phoenix, a word they must shake if they hope to find success in 2012, is uncertainty. Who knows how all the pieces, old and young, veterans and rookies, mainstays and new guys, will fit together? Who knows if the Rockies will lose their motivation in early summer as they tend to do? Most importantly, who’s got that winning fire in his eyes? Who of these misfits can get fans excited about a team playing good baseball night in and night out? These are questions the Rockies will need to solve early in 2012, not just push under the rug (er--dirt) like they did in 2011. If they can answer them the right way and stand up to their NL West rivals, they could give Rockies fans another taste of 2007. If not, they’ll have to search for answers again next winter, while their formerly-excited fans drift further and further away.