01/29/2003 7:00 pm ET
Rockies Spring Training Rundown
Plenty of questions to answer as club heads to camp
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
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Hi Corbett Field
73-89, fourth in NL West
2002 Hitting Leaders
(min. 200 at-bats)
BA: Larry Walker, .338
OBP: Todd Helton, .429
SLG: Walker, .602
Runs: Helton, 107
RBIs: Helton, 109
Hits: Helton, 319
2B: Walker, 40
3B: Juan Uribe, 7
HR: Helton, 30
SB: Juan Pierre, 47
2002 Pitching Leaders
(min. 30 IP)
IP: Jason Jennings, 185 1/3
W: Jennings, 16
L: Mike Hampton, 15
Win %: Denny Stark, .733 (11-4)
S: Jose Jimenez, 42
ERA: Jimenez, 3.56
K: Jennings, 127
K/9: Jennings, 6.17
WHIP: Justin Speier, 1.12
Projected Starting Lineup
2B Pablo Ozuna
LF Jay Payton
RF Larry Walker
1B Todd Helton
CF Preston Wilson
3B Jose Hernandez
C Charles Johnson
SS Juan Uribe
1. Denny Neagle
2. Jason Jennings
3. Denny Stark
4/5. Aaron Cook, Shawn Chacon or Scott Elarton
LH setup man: Darren Oliver, Vic Darensbourg or Brian Fuentes
RH setup man: Todd Jones
Closer: Jose Jimenez
Spring Cleaning: Five questions that need answers
1. Has Larry Walker put behind him whatever ill feelings that may have arisen from his near trade to Arizona last season?
Walker and Arizona third baseman Matt Williams each used their no-trade clauses to block the deal, but nearly losing the best player in club history nearly was surprising. After the trade fell through, manager Clint Hurdle urged Walker to take a frank look in the mirror. During heavy public discussion of the potential trade, many fans thought the Rockies were nuts but some fans and commentators were saying good riddance. Now Hurdle has challenged Walker to put the whispers to rest during the final three years of his contract.
2. Did the additions of players heavy on potential but light on consistency improve the offense?
OF Jay Payton batted .335 after arriving in July, but he was available because the New York Mets slashed his playing time. OF Gabe Kapler batted .311 for the Rockies, but he was available at the deadline because the Texas Rangers grew impatient with his progress. In 2000, OF Preston Wilson knocked 31 home runs, but had 185 strikeouts. INF Jose Hernandez hit 25 homers in 2001 and 24 in 2002 but struck out 185 and 188 times, respectively. INF Chris Stynes lost the third base job with the Chicago Cubs last season. These are the players who must join Walker and 1B Todd Helton in boosting an offense that scored the second-fewest runs over a 162-game season in club history.
3. Has shortstop Juan Uribe improved enough offensively and defensively to stay in the majors?
Uribe's struggles were passed off as growing pains last season, but his final .240 average and 27 errors led the Rockies to enter Spring Training with a Plan B. Now Hernandez, brought in to play third, can shift to shortstop (where he earned an All-Star invitation last year with Milwaukee) if the Rockies need him. Uribe, 23, will need to either repeat his performance of last spring (.345, team-high 18 RBIs) or find himself at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
4. How will the revamped pitching rotation look, and can veteran Denny Neagle lead it?
The Rockies were 30-22 when rookies Jason Jennings and Denny Stark started, and 20-38 when their veterans -- the departed Mike Hampton (now with Atlanta) and Neagle -- took the mound. But the Rockies have told Neagle he is their ace, and are expecting him to return to form and absorb the big matchups. Behind Neagle, Jennings and Stark, the Rockies will have competition and further questions. Prospect Aaron Cook will need to show he is ready and Scott Elarton will need to prove his shoulder is healthy again. Shawn Chacon simply needs to show he can handle the major leagues. Above all else, Neagle will need to pitch well enough either to help the Rockies challenge or attract a taker for the rest of his contract at the trading deadline.
5. If long-touted outfield prospects Jack Cust and Ben Petrick put up big spring numbers, what will it mean?
Last spring, Cust batted .344 with home runs on three of his 11 hits; Petrick batted .310 with five triples and made the team. During the regular season, Petrick batted .211 and Cust .169, and both spent much of the year at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Both are down to their last option. If they're hot in Tucson, the Rockies will have to decide whether they'll turn icy again when the team heads north.
New Faces: players acquired via trade or free agency
INF Ron Belliard -- Once the starting second baseman in Milwaukee, Belliard is a non-roster signee who will get a shot to win the starting job.
C Raul Casanova -- An afterthought in the Rockies' 2000 camp, Casanova has since played with Milwaukee and Baltimore. Now he has a minor-league deal and a chance.
RHP Nelson Cruz -- The Rockies hope Cruz forgets last season in Houston (2-6, 4.15) and throws more like the dependable reliever who appeared in 66 games for the Astros in 2001.
LHP Vic Darensbourg -- This ex-Marlin slumped to 1-2, 6.14 and found himself in the minors last season, but struck out 33 and walked six in 2001.
3B Kevin Eberwein -- Injuries derailed his chances with San Diego, but the Rockies hope they've found a power-hitting gem on the waiver wire.
RHP Rich Garces -- Another non-roster invitee, Garces hopes to rebound from an injury-plagued 2002 and show the form that helped make him popular with Boston.
OF Brad Hawpe -- After a strong Single-A performance as a first baseman (.347, 22 HRs, 97 RBIs), Hawpe is in big-league camp and could progress quickly if he adjusts to the outfield.
INF Jose Hernandez -- With 49 homers the past two seasons with Milwaukee, the Rockies hope Coors Field makes Hernandez the second coming of Vinny Castilla.
C Charles Johnson -- Written off last season in Florida, Johnson is expected to catch like the four-time Gold Glove winner he is and possibly return to his 31-homer form of 2000.
INF Luis Lopez -- Yet another ex-Brewer, Lopez is under Triple-A contract but could become a factor in the case of injuries or non-performance from roster players.
RHP Dan Miceli -- Released by Texas last season, Miceli hopes to return to the form he showed for the Rockies in 2001 (2-0, 2.21 in 22 games).
LHP Darren Oliver -- After spending part of last season with Boston (4-5, 4.66) Oliver hopes to help in either the starting rotation or the bullpen.
2B Pablo Ozuna - Ozuna, also from Florida, gained four years in a visa check last offseason, but who cares if he can solidify second and the leadoff spot?
RHP Steve Reed -- Reed, with San Diego and the New York Mets last year, is a rare breed of pitcher who has toiled in five seasons for Colorado (1993-97) and thrived (25-18, 3.68 ERA).
INF Chris Stynes -- Stynes, who played for the Chicago Cubs last season, arrives with a .493 batting average in 69 at-bats at Coors and, depending on how camp falls, a shot to start at second or third.
OF Preston Wilson -- Once a prospect with the Mets alongside Jay Payton, Wilson comes from Florida possessing a hard swing and enough speed to be a threat on the bases.
Long Gone: players lost via trade or free agency since last season
C Sandy Alomar Jr. -- Colorado hired Sandy Sr. as third base coach, but the Chicago White Sox showed Junior the playing time and the money.
C Gary Bennett -- After spending much of his career in the minors, Bennett performed solidly and earned a new contract from the San Diego Padres.
LHP Mike Hampton -- The big money and high hopes were all for naught; now Hampton will try to revive his big-game reputation in Atlanta.
RHP Pete Harnisch -- An elbow injury ended Harnisch's comeback with Colorado before it started. Now he'll try to make it back to the mound with the Cincinnati Reds.
LHP Kent Mercker -- After a year away from the game, Mercker pitched decently before suffering a hand injury. He recently agreed to join Harnisch in Cincinnati's camp.
2B Jose Ortiz -- After showing promise in 2001, Ortiz fell victim to pitchers who exposed his lack of plate discipline. The Rockies released him to work a deal with a Japanese team.
RHP Sean Lowe -- Lowe showed mixed results in a late-season stint with the Rockies, but was released. Lowe has signed a minor-league deal with Kansas City.
OF Juan Pierre -- The Marlins insisted on taking Pierre, the Rockies' main stolen-base threat the past 2 1/3 seasons, to facilitate the three-team transaction that landed Hampton in Atlanta.
INF-OF Terry Shumpert -- After five years filling in wherever the Rockies needed him, Shumpert is hoping to provide the same help to Los Angeles.
3B Todd Zeile -- With the exception of an illness-induced slump, Zeile played solidly for the Rockies and wants to do the same for the New York Yankees.
Returning from Injury
RHP Scott Elarton -- His healthy return from shoulder surgery is key to the Rockies' hopes for an effective starting rotation. Elarton won 17 games for Houston in 1999.
C Bobby Estalella -- Estalella gave the Rockies good defense and power last year, until a left shoulder injury rendered him ineffective and forced surgery. The Rockies think he can blossom.
1B Todd Helton -- Postseason surgery cleaned up bone spurs in his left elbow, and he hopes rest and exercise alleviates a back problem. Still, the Rockies plan to give him more rest.
LHP Denny Neagle -- Neagle pitched well late in the season, but bone chips in the elbow marred his finish. Could a clean arm be the key to him starting the season in good form?
New Kids on the Block: prospects to watch
3B Garrett Atkins -- A fifth-round choice in 2000, Atkins has hit for average throughout his time in the system. If he adds power, he could be hitting at Coors by season's end.
3B Jeff Baker -- Drafted last summer, Baker showed enough power in college to convince the Rockies to sign him to a big-league deal.
C J.D. Closser -- An effective switch hitter, Closser's defensive development could accelerate during a camp around a veteran like Charles Johnson.
RHP Aaron Cook -- Cook was good enough during a late-season stint (2-1, 4.54 in nine games, five starts) that the Rockies limited his innings, so he could compete for NL rookie honors.
OF Choo Freeman -- Coming off a .291 performance in Double-A, Freeman makes his 40-man roster debut and has a shot in camp to leave a strong impression.
OF Matt Holliday -- A big guy who takes a big cut, Holliday will get more fine tuning during camp.
RHP Jason Young -- The Rockies' second-round choice in 2000 ended last season strong in Triple-A, and could be a factor in Colorado at some point this sason.
RHP Chin-hui Tsao -- Tsao missed 2001 because of elbow surgery, but was dominant by the end of 2002 and is expected to continue on the fast track to the majors.
LHP Cory Vance -- A fourth-round pick in 2000, Vance pitched a full Double-A season last year, then showed promise during a surprise call-up to Colorado.
OF Luke Allen -- If Allen, acquired recently from Los Angeles, develops some power to go with the .329 stroke he showed at Triple-A last season, he could help the big squad.
On the Rebound
RHP Shawn Chacon -- Handed a spot in the rotation going into last spring, Chacon lost it by going 5-11, 5.73.
C Charles Johnson -- He felt mistreated in Florida, but his .217 batting average didn't help. Coming to a team that needs his experience could make all the difference.
SS Juan Uribe -- The Rockies rushed him to the bigs in 2001, when they traded Neifi Perez in a salary dispute. Now Uribe must prove he's truly ready to be in the majors.
The Bottom Line
The best way to go into Spring Training is with most positions filled with solid players. That won't be the case for Colorado manager Clint Hurdle in his first Spring Training. But at least Hurdle has the next best thing -- competition for jobs. Only first baseman Todd Helton, right fielder Larry Walker and catcher Charles Johnson are assured of regular lineup jobs; Jason Jennings, Denny Stark and Denny Neagle are set for the starting rotation; and Jose Jimenez, Todd Jones, Justin Speier and Steve Reed are set for the bullpen. Otherwise, may the best player play.
One reason so many jobs are open is because the Rockies' tight budget kept them out of the running for top free agents. Instead, the Rockies are populated with players who hit hard but also miss hard, and others who earn playing time with their bats but sometimes lose it with their gloves. What most have in common is the need to prove themselves after negative experiences with their former teams and/or a lack of interest from other teams during the winter.
Somewhere in all that, the Rockies hope they've put together a squad that lives up to Hurdle's favorite bit of advice, to play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back. Whether that means this team will develop into one and improve upon the Rockies' two straight 73-89 finishes isn't as important as the fact the Rockies have a larger-than-usual group of prospects who will be hearing Hurdle's words for six weeks in Tucson.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.