Rockies ponder a potential Tulo absence
While no good Plan B exists, Rockies should be OK defensively
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's tough to spoil the good mood of Rockies manager Jim Tracy. Not even a rainstorm Monday that wiped out a game in which the Rockies scored five runs in 2 2/3 innings against Giants ace starting pitcher Tim Lincecum could do it.
But one question did, at least temporarily: What happens if Gold Glove shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is injured?
"Did you have to bring that up?" Tracy asked.
At least he smiled. Tracy plans for everything. Besides, the Rockies have had to activate the Sans-Tulo Initiative in two of the last three seasons.
It didn't exactly work in 2008. Tulowitzki's pair of injuries -- a torn right quadriceps tendon that cost him 46 games, and a lacerated right hand that cost him 13 -- were among the many problems as the Rockies went from World Series participant in 2007 to a sub-.500 also-ran.
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Last year, the Rockies absorbed his 33-game absence with a fractured left wrist a little better. They went 17-16, primarily with second baseman Clint Barmes moving to short and Jonathan Herrera playing second. Barmes could not come close to Tulowitzki's offensive production, but the defense didn't suffer.
The problem this season is that Barmes is no longer around, as he was dealt to the Astros for hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Felipe Paulino.
"Losing 'Barmie,' we definitely lost someone who gave us a very viable Plan B," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It would be more of a piecing it together-type thing, rather than somebody playing day in and day out."
At least the Rockies have been quietly preparing.
"Go back to last year, when we were in a really good place late in September, several games over .500," Tracy said. "But in getting there, I got to think about, let's see, we had no closer [Huston Street was out] for 11 weeks, our setup man [Rafael Betancourt] not himself for the first 4 1/2 weeks of the season, Todd Helton on the disabled list, Troy Tulowitzki, 33 games without him, Brad Hawpe [now with the Padres] not himself, four-fifths of the rotation at some point in time down to the disabled list.
"I never once complained or made it an excuse."
This spring, Tulowitzki has played just 55 innings (counting two in Monday's rained-out game against the Giants) defensively, and that has left plenty of time for others.
Hernan Iribarren, who saw brief action with the Brewers in 2008 and 2009, appeared in 45 innings. Shortstop prospect Hector Gomez, who has physical gifts but has battled injuries throughout his career, has seen 37 innings and Herrera 36.
Iribarren, who has played mostly second base, and Gomez, 23, who was limited to nine games at Double-A Tulsa last year because of back injuries, have already been sent to Minor League camp. Herrera has a Minor League history at short, but has played mostly second base and third base in the Majors. The Rockies see the switch-hitting Herrera as being able to move to shortstop here and there, but any plan involving him would involve others.
An intriguing possibility is former Marlins jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Amezaga, 33, a non-roster invitee.
Left knee problems limited him to 69 at-bats with the Marlins in 2009 and one Minor League game in 2010. Amezaga wasn't cleared to play for the Rockies until well into camp, but he has seen 22 innings at short, and left a good impression in the process.
Amezaga was an infielder early in his career with the Angels, and during brief stops with the Rockies and the Pirates. He played extensively in the outfield with the Marlins, but never lost his shortstop skills.
"I've seen Alfredo Amezaga basically catch the ball wherever we've put him," Tracy said.
O'Dowd said health is the biggest issue with Amezaga. Projecting a roster that will carry pinch-hit slugger Jason Giambi and multi-position players in Herrera, projected starting second baseman Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton, it looks as if the Rockies can entertain sending Amezaga to Triple-A Colorado Springs. That way, he can play regularly and make sure he's healthy. But anything can happen between now and the end of camp.
"Alfredo still needs to get more at-bats and more reps," O'Dowd said. "It's been a while, but we're really happy with the energy and quality of the defense he's brought to our club so far."
Chris Nelson, 25, was a shortstop when the Rockies selected him in the first round in 2004, but his career has moved into a post-shortstop stage.
The Rockies are intrigued by his .313 average in 85 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs, as their regular shortstop, and his .280 mark in 19 games with the Rockies last year. In the Majors, however, Nelson was used at second and third. The Rockies played Nelson at several positions this spring, with 19 of his innings coming at short. Nelson also has been sent to Minor League camp to receive regular playing time.
For now, it seems the Rockies lean toward a combination of players, with Amezaga and Herrera receiving most of the action, if Tulowitzki has to miss time.
"We'll figure something out," Tracy said. "Catching a ball and not asking a player to be Troy Tulowitzki ... just like we did last year. We didn't ask Clint Barmes to become Troy Tulowitzki because we were moving him over to shortstop. Go over there, catch the ball and make the routine plays."
Of course, any plan without Tulowitzki is one the Rockies would rather not implement.
"There's really no good alternative should Tulo get hurt," O'Dowd said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.