Rox look to build on strong second half
Might need to acquire right-handed bat for 2010 season
DENVER -- After covering a tremendous distance in 2009 -- from 18-28 to the National League Wild Card -- the Rockies find themselves trying to figure out how to take the next difficult step. That would be showing sustained success.
The turnaround that occurred after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager was dramatic and unexpected. What the Rockies haven't done is perform when facing big expectations. For example, after the surprise World Series trip in 2007, the Rockies dropped to 74-88 in 2008.
With many of the key players under contract or club control, the Rockies don't have to worry about jettisoning high-end salaries. Their concerns are baseball-related.
The club had the lowest ERA in its history, proving again that it's possible to win with pitching at Coors Field. With a young staff that's led by Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez, and with lefty Jeff Francis back from injury, pitching could be the club's strength again. The offense stands to take another step.
The .253 batting average against left-handed pitching suggests the team is imbalanced to the left. Losing to the Phillies in the NL Division Series, and struggling throughout the year against the Dodgers, exposed this issue.
It would be nice to have a righty batter other than shortstop Troy Tulowitzki who hits for power and average. Three of the key right-handed hitters -- second baseman Clint Barmes, third baseman Garrett Atkins and catcher Chris Iannetta -- had long periods of struggle. Atkins and Iannetta each lost their starting jobs. Barmes provided run production, if not average.
The big question will be can the Rockies hope for a turnaround from their righty hitters, or should they seek a big right-handed bat through a trade? Left-handed hitting right fielder Brad Hawpe, who had an All-Star first half but struggled late in the season, has been mentioned in reports of possible trades. But the Rockies would have to be blown away by the offer to make such a deal.
The Rockies also could look for a bargain in free agency to help the rotation, but don't expect many changes. The Rockies reached this point by trusting the products of their system to correct any problems.
It worked for them in 2009.
Free agents: Joe Beimel, LHP; Jose Contreras, RHP; Jason Giambi, 1B; Matt Herges, RHP; Jason Marquis, RHP; Josh Fogg, RHP; Juan Rincon, RHP
Eligible for arbitration: Garrett Atkins, 3B; Clint Barmes, 2B; Matt Belisle, RHP; Taylor Buchholz, RHP; Jorge De La Rosa, LHP; Randy Flores, LHP; Jason Hammel, RHP; Chris Iannetta, C; Matt Murton, OF; Ryan Spilborghs, OF; Omar Quintanila, INF; Huston Street, RHP.
Club options: Rafael Betancourt, RHP, $5.4 million
Mutual options: Yorvit Torrealba, C, $4 million with a $500,000 buyout; if club exercises, player has 48 hours to decide whether to exercise option; Alan Embree, LHP, $3 million or $250,000 buyout; if club exercises option, player has right to void contract and take buyout.
Non-tender possibilities: Atkins, 3B.
Yorvit Torrealba, .291 BA, 2 HRs, 31 RBIs
Chris Iannetta, .228 BA, 16 HRs, 52 RBIs
Paul Phillips, .311 BA, 1 HR, 9 RBIs
The expectation going into the year was Iannetta would take off and establish himself as an annual All-Star candidate. Not only did he take a step backward in terms of average, but he also didn't handle pitchers as well as expected. Torrealba caught fire offensively during the drive to the playoffs, and was spot-on when it came to calling pitches and instituting the gameplan. It gets interesting if Torrealba returns. For all his faults, Iannetta showed power, and the Rockies need it from the right side. But the image of Torrealba having fun and taking command when the games became meaningful is fresh in Tracy's mind.
Todd Helton, .325 BA, 15 HRs, 86 RBIs
Atkins, .226 BA, 9 HRs, 48 RBIs
This time last year, everyone was finding gentle ways of saying it wasn't certain that Helton would be effective again, after back surgery. All Helton did was respond by finishing fourth in the NL in batting and re-establishing himself as the Rockies' No. 3 hitter. That crisis is averted, but the club still needs a second first baseman. Helton played 151 games in a season in which he turned 36, so the Rockies are going to have to be cognizant of resting him. Atkins, if he's back, can help.
Clint Barmes, .245, 23 HRs, 76 RBIs
Eric Young Jr., .246 BA, 1 HR, 1 RBI
Omar Quintanilla, .172, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs
One of Tracy's first moves was to commit to Barmes at second. He stayed with him through an awful second-half slump (.205, but with 13 home runs in 69 games) because of defensive range. Young, a switch-hitter, excelled in 2009 in his first Triple-A season, showing speed and ability during a late-season trial, and could be ready to challenge for a regular role soon.
Troy Tulowitzki, .297 BA, 32 HRs, 92 RBIs
Tulowitzki took off not long after the managerial change, but it had more to do with his maturity. Tulowitzki learned through his 2008 struggles that slumps are temporary, so he didn't panic when he was struggling in June. All that stands between Tulowitzki and All-Star status is finding a way to avoid slow starts to the season.
Ian Stewart, .228 BA, 25 HRs, 70 RBIs
Stewart showed the power that the Rockies anticipated when they made him a first-round pick out of high school. But the team didn't expect his low batting average, and the 138 strikeouts will have to be reduced. Tracy ended up going with Atkins in the playoffs, and Atkins responded with a better swing than during the regular year. It'll be interesting to follow this dynamic over the winter, when the Rockies must make a decision whether to keep Atkins.
Brad Hawpe, .285 BA, 23 HRs, 86 RBIs
Dexter Fowler, .266 BA, 4 HRs, 34 RBIs
Carlos Gonzalez, .284 BA, 13 HRs, 29 RBIs
Seth Smith, .293 BA, 15 HRs, 55 RBIs
Ryan Spilborghs, .241 BA, 8 HRs, 48 RBIs
Hawpe became an All-Star during the first half but slumped so dramatically during the second half that he started just one postseason game. Immediate speculation is that he could be traded to fill other needs, but Hawpe came up through the system, has been valued for five years and would be hard to deal. The outfield tilts heavily to the left-hand side, but there is depth. Fowler, a rookie, and Gonzalez, obtained last winter, increased the club's athletic ability offensively and defensively. Smith swung well as a pinch-hitter and as a starter. Spilborghs lost playing time to Fowler, Gonzalez and Smith, but he's the only right-handed bat of the bunch (Fowler is a switch-hitter).
RHP Aaron Cook, 11-6, 4.16 ERA
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, 15-12, 3.47 ERA
LHP Jorge De La Rosa, 16-9, 4.38 ERA
RHP Jason Hammel, 10-8, 4.33 ERA
RHP Jason Marquis, 15-13, 4.04 ERA
LHP Jeff Francis (missed season because of shoulder surgery)
No one expected such a solid year from the rotation, especially after Francis was shelved early in Spring Training and many of the rotation members struggled in the Cactus League. But the starters tied the Cardinals for the NL lead in wins with 69, and the 94 quality starts smashed the old club record of 81. Jimenez and De La Rosa became forces. Cook was consistent until injuries slowed him during the second half. Marquis is a free agent and the Rockies might have to replace him. This is where Francis, a 17-game winner in 2007, comes in, provided he is past the shoulder problems that marred 2008 and cost him 2009. Hammel, obtained in a trade with the Rays at the beginning of the year, wound up a difference-maker. If Marquis leaves, the Rockies could look for another veteran, but such a pitcher might not be as necessary with Jimenez and Cook becoming leaders. Righty prospects Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers and Samuel Deduno are close to contributing at the Major League level. An intriguing lefty could be Greg Smith, who was obtained from the Athletics in the Matt Holliday trade (along with outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and reliever Huston Street), but suffered shoulder problems during Spring Training and did not pitch in the Majors. Oft-injured former top pick Greg Reynolds also must regain health and show he deserves to be on the big team's radar.
RHP Huston Street, 4-1, 3.06 ERA, 35 saves
RHP Rafael Betancourt, 4-3, 2.73 ERA, 2 saves (Cle. & Col.)
LHP Franklin Morales, 3-2, 4.50 ERA, 7 saves
RHP Matt Daley, 1-1, 4.24 ERA
LHP Joe Beimel, 1-6, 3.58 ERA (Wash. & Col.)
RHP Matt Belisle, 3-1, 5.52 ERA
RHP Jose Contreras, 6-13, 4.92 ERA (CWS & Col.)
RHP Manuel Corpas, 1-3, 5.88 ERA, 1 save
LHP Alan Embree, 2-2, 5.84 ERA
RHP Taylor Buchholz (did not pitch, Tommy John surgery)
The bullpen lost Buchholz before the year began, veteran Embree suffered a broken leg, and former closer Corpas lost his effectiveness, then underwent elbow surgery. Only Street was with the bullpen from beginning to end. Yet, the group went 23-20 with a 4.49 ERA, and was solid by season's end. The club has a chance to sign Street to a multi-year deal. Betancourt solidified the setup man job, so bringing him back should be a priority. Morales became a left-handed force toward the end of the season. Daley throughout the year and Belisle late in the year were major surprises. Contreras could be an intriguing figure. With a shortage of starters industry-wide, he could be in demand. But he was effective and had top-shelf velocity in a relief role, and it may be worthwhile for the Rockies to try to retain him.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.