Rockies have tools to keep 2012 in past
The Colorado Rockies are coming off the toughest season in franchise history.Don't fret. Their manager, Jim Tracy, resigned, even though he was guaranteed $1.4 million for 2013, and was replaced by former shortstop Walt Weiss, whose managerial background consisted of coaching Regis Jesuit High School last year. Don't worry. The biggest offseason addition has been the acquisition of reliever Wilton Lopez from the Houston Astros. Be happy. A year ago, the Rockies were considered a sleeper in the National League West. And this year, there is reason to be optimistic that this team can make a major rebound and be a part of a division race. To understand the Rockies' reason for hope in 2013, it's necessary to remember the reasons for despair in 2012. Jeremy Guthrie, acquired to provide veteran stability to the rotation before he was dealt to Kansas City, was overcome by the challenge of Coors Field. While the right-hander found new life with the Royals, he not only struggled to win as a member of the Rockies -- going 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA -- he didn't provide the workload the club expected of him, averaging fewer than five innings per start. The projected Big Three of the rotation -- Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Jhoulys Chacin -- combined to make only 28 starts and pitched just 137 2/3 innings. De La Rosa was limited to three appearances in the final two weeks of the regular season after a longer-than-expected recovery from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in June 2011. Nicasio bounced back from a fractured neck in 2011, but he twisted his left knee two months into the 2012 season and was done for the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery. Chacin tried to pitch through right biceps soreness in April, but doctors ultimately discovered a nerve issue that was addressed and cost him the better part of the final five months of the season. The Nos. 3-6 hitters in the lineup -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton and Michael Cuddyer -- all missed extended time due to injuries. Gonzalez made his first All-Star appearance but also battled a right hamstring injury, and his 579 plate appearances ranked 13th among Major League No. 3 hitters. Tulowitzki underwent surgery for a nerve problem that the Rockies feel might have been the cause for his constant battle with groin strains, and it left Tulowitzki with only 181 at-bats. Helton underwent right hip surgery, managing only 229 plate apparances. Cuddyer, who opened the season hitting sixth, had ony 137 plate appearances in that slot, which was fewer than teammate Jordan Pacheco (162). But this year … All seven players have been given a clean bill of health this offseason. De La Rosa, Chacin and Nicasio -- along with Jeff Francis, who returned to the Rockies last June -- will provide the foundation for a rotation that the club didn't have a year ago. Suddenly, instead of asking four rookies to rush to the big leagues and have instant success, the Rockies will need only one of a group that includes Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich, Tyler Chatwood and Josh Outman to step forward. There's also the possibility of a resurgence from Chris Volstad, who signed a Minor League deal in January. With the expectation of the veteran nucleus this time around, the Rockies have shelved the over-analyzed four-man rotation scheme they put into action last season. While the experiment became a focal point for the team's disappointments, in only 22 of the 162 games the Rockies played was a starter asked to work on three days of rest. The four-man plan was primarily put in place to try to find a way to protect a bullpen that was asked to carry the heaviest load. Rockies relievers worked 657 innings in 2012, the most of any bullpen in Major League history. The 2003 Texas Rangers (601 1/3 relief innings) had been the only other team to reach the 600-inning level. And the Rockies' bullpen actually won 35 of its 65 decisions, a far cry better than the rotation's 29-68 record. The Rockies do have the core of that bullpen back with closer Rafael Betancourt, the left-right eighth-inning combo of Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle, and Adam Ottavino, who adapted well to a move from the rotation, where he had worked in the St. Louis farm system. And there is the addition of Lopez, who made 64 or more appearances and had an ERA below 3.00 in each of his three full seasons in Houston. Offensively, while Gonzalez, Tulowitzki, Helton and Cuddyer missed time last year, Dexter Fowler made a statement that he is ready to be a legitimate leadoff hitter/center fielder by batting .300 with a .389 on-base percentage, and the absence of the club's four best hitters provided unexpected playing time for Josh Rutledge, Tyler Colvin and Pacheco. Rutledge, a shortstop whom the Rockies felt a year ago would be their second baseman in 2013, made the in-season jump from Double-A Tulsa and established during his extended opportunity in the absence of Tulowitzki that he is ready for the bigs. Colvin regained his power in 2012 and gives the Rockies a versatile left-handed bat capable of playing all three outfield positions in addition to first base. And Pacheco did in the big leagues what he has done at every other level he's played -- hit. He added to the Rockies' depth because of his ability to play first base, third, second and catcher. The preseason predictions won't reflect much hope for the Rockies. So much went wrong last year that the picture is cloudy for 2013. The Rockies, however, have reason to believe that this year won't be a lost cause.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.