With an improbable June and a stellar July so far, the Colorado Rockies are showing naysayers they are here to contend.
With Monday’s 10-6 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, along with the San Francisco Giants being pounded by the Atlanta Braves, the Rockies can say that if the regular season ended today, they would become the National League wild card winners for the second time in the past three years.
Problem is, there are still 68 games to play.
But with a record of 33-15 since May 29 when manager Jim Tracy took over, the Rockies look like they can compete to the end.
With the trade deadline approaching in T-9 days, what the Rockies desperately need is a strong middle reliever.
The club’s bullpen looks nothing like its opening day roster. With the exception of Huston Street, who also lost his role as closer once, the bullpen has been shuffled around and mix and matched in its entirety.
Matt Daley, Josh Fogg, Juan Rincon and Ryan Speier were not on the club’s opening day roster. Franklin Morales was, but not as a reliever. The club traded Jason Grilli while sending down players like Joel Peralta and Matt Belisle.
The team also lost a quality arm in Taylor Buchholz to Tommy John surgery and a veteran leader in Alan Embree to a broken leg. They recently added veteran Matt Herges to a minor-league deal and is reporting interest in free agent Mike Timlin.
Sure, signing a guy with the name Roy Halladay would bring excitement to Blake Street, but for what, two months? And Matt Holliday had a great stay in purple pinstripes, but a reunion tour is not what needs to be done to make an October push.
What the Rockies need is a reliable setup man.
Not some has-been or could-be. Not multiple washed up pitchers like in years past.
The organization has minor league depth in nearly every position. I’m not suggesting throwing away the farm, but package a couple prospects for a guy that can bridge the gap between the starting rotation and closer Huston Street. Or even better, if O’Dowd can find a club that will unload Garrett Atkins or Yorvit Torrealba, take it.
Chad Qualls is, perhaps, the biggest availability.
With 18 saves for a dismal Diamondback team, Qualls is paving his best year in the majors. He sports a lifetime 3.31 ERA, but one of his more impressive stats is just three home runs allowed this season. This would help in the thin air of Colorado.
Other possible names on the market: Boston’s Takashi Saito, Baltimore’s lefthander George Sherrill and Cleveland’s Rafael Bentancourt.
Colorado has a good team, no doubt. But with its bullpen ranked 14th out of the 16-team National League, it is apparent that a strong setup man is needed.
Perhaps the biggest evidence, however, is the last two nights. On Monday night the Rockies held a 10-1 lead leading up to the seventh inning, when the relievers surrendered five runs, causing our closer to get warmed up in the ninth inning.
In Tuesday’s loss to the Diamondbacks, the Rockies blew a 4-0 lead, with the relievers allowing the final runs for the loss.
In less than two months, the Rockies have jumped from 10 under to eight over. I believe it’s time the Rockies become buyers at the deadline and purchase a durable arm.
Jeff Francis’ return to the top of the Rockies’ rotation ended before it even began.
The left-handed pitcher, who has been experiencing shoulder pain and missed the end of 2008 due to the injury, announced Thursday afternoon that he will undergo arthroscopic surgery and will miss 2009 in its entirety.
The Rockies’ ace propelled the club to its first playoff berth in 12 seasons and first National League pennant in 2007 with 17 wins, including two postseason victories. Relying heavily on him last year, Francis struggled from April through the end, going 4-10 with a 5.01 ERA.
The surgery, which will be performed in order to discover the exact nature of the injury, generally takes six to 12 months to recover. It is believed that he has a torn labrum flap in his shoulder but the operation will officially determine the injury.
An unfortunate event to begin 2009 indeed, but the problem I see with this situation is that Francis waited until after he reported to Spring Training to decide that he needed surgery.
His throwing shoulder has been bothering him since at least mid-2008, yet no decision was made to shut him down until Thursday.
I understand being optimistic that rest will help it heal, but the pain should have been responded to earlier in the offseason so that surgery could have taken place and Francis could recover throughout the season, and at least have a shot at jumping back into the rotation late down the stretch in case the Rockies are in a race for the NL West.
Instead Francis can do nothing but watch.
The news is disappointing for Rockies fans, but the club enters Spring Training with more starting pitching depth than ever before.
Keep in mind, though, that quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality.
Aaron Cook stepped up last season, winning 16 games and molding into the Rockies’ ace once Francis struggled early. The Rockies need him to show consistency, especially late in the season, and continue to improve on his 16 wins from 2008.
Ever since being drafted, scouts and the front office have told fans that Ubaldo Jimenez, a 25-year-old pitcher with velocity that competes with anyone in the league, has the potential to emerge into a No. 1 quality pitcher and could become the best prospect the team has ever landed. I’m not doubting Jimenez’ (12-12, 3.99 ERA in 2008) talent and abilities, but after two seasons of promise but inconsistency, now is the time for the young Latin American to step up and prove himself.
Expecting for the worst with Francis, the Rockies picked up veteran Jason Marquis in a trade with the Cubs over the offseason. In my view, this is a good move for the club. In 2008, Marquis was 11-9 with a 4.53 ERA. He has proved to pitch well at Coors Field in limited experience (3-0) and can eat up a lot of innings. I see him as a good fit in the middle of our rotation.
Jorge De La Rosa is expected to be the team’s fourth starter. Last year was the lefty’s first winning season where he posted 10-8 record with a 4.92 ERA in 23 starts. The pitcher is still emerging but competed well, filling a role in the rotation last season when injuries began to pile up.
The final spot of the rotation is wide open. Josh Fogg, Jason Hirsch, Franklin Morales, Greg Reynolds, Glendon Rusch, and Greg Smith will compete for the final spot. If Morales, like Jimenez, can live up to his potential, he will be a good mix in the rotation. If it seems like his control hasn’t improved, Hirsch, Fogg, or whoever it may be that wins the job in Spring Training will need to step up.
Even without Francis, the Rockies have arms that have the potential to fill his role. It’s just a matter of if the team will step up.
Only time will tell.
Fans were quickly sent back to reality early in 2008, however, when the Colorado Rockies fell off the mountain and couldn’t rebound after a 20-38 start and ended up towards the bottom of an awful National League West.
Spring has arrived, however. The calendar has turned, the weather is slowly beginning to warm up and players are arriving in Arizona for Spring Training. A new season and fresh opportunities.
So as the 2009 season approaches, there is optimistic hope among fans and players alike. But the question of how realistic the goals of turning this season’s team from a 74-88 record in 2008 to the 90 wins and World Series birth the year prior remains with several “ifs.”
It’s not easy to remain positive after losing the face of the franchise in Matt Holliday. In return, they received a couple of prospects (Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez) and an established, but also often-injured closer, Huston Street.
The first question regards Holliday’s replacement in left field. Although not a stellar outfielder, his solid .320+ batting average, .530+ slugging percentage and 25+ home runs will be missed. His most likely replacement is Seth Smith. In 67 games last season, Smith hit .259, but his future is bright with the glimpses of power last season.
Gonzalez will most likely start the season in Colorado Springs (the Rockies’ AAA affiliate) while third basemen Ian Stewart will get a few spring looks, trying to make the transformation from the infield to the outfield after the Rockies resigned Garrett Atkins earlier this month.
The Rockies lost most of their speed in center fielder Willy Taveras, but the speedster lacked getting on base last year. A .308 on base percentage won’t cut it for a leadoff hitter. Last year’s backup, Scott Podsednik will get a look, but the favorite is Ryan Spilborghs, who had a breakout season last year, hitting over .300 and getting quality starts in the outfield.
Prospect Dexter Fowler is a name that gets fans excited for the future, but, like Gonzalez, may be better suited starting the year in Colorado Springs until after the All-Star break.
The hot corner seems set with Atkins getting most of the starts, and Stewart, who has gold glove potential and am improving bat, filling in when Atkins shifts across the diamond to first base when veteran Todd Helton needs some rest for his ailing back, which was surgically repaired during the off season.
Troy Tulowitzki, who grabbed fans’ hearts during his rookie season, seems to be back from his sophomore slump, but we won’t know for sure until April.
Helton says he feels good, but how will his surgically-repaired back hold up 100 games into the season in the grind of the hot summer?
The Rockies signed two proven managers during the off season as manager Clint Hurtle enters 2009 in the last year of his contract. One this is for certain, fans won’t let the Rockies ownership give Hurdle an extension on Opening Day this year until he proves himself.
Will Hurdle even be manager of the club in mid-May? Or will an early losing streak promote bench coach Jim Tracy or hitting coach and former Rockies manager Don Baylor to skipper?
And of course, saving the most uncertain for last, the pitching staff. Their 2007 ace, Jeff Francis, will likely undergo season-ending surgery before the season even begins. Aaron Cook (16-9, 3.96 ERA last year) needs to prove himself again this season. With the acquisition of veteran Jason Marquis, the fellow sinkerballers could work well together. Could being a key word.
The team signed Ubaldo Jimenez to four more years last month. With the speed of an ace, the 25-year-old needs to perform consistently and work on his control. And the back-end of the rotation? It seems like the team had an open invitation to Spring Training with Greg Smith, Franklin Morales, Glendon Rusch, Jason Hirsh, Josh Fogg, Greg Reynolds, and Jorge De La Rosa all fighting for the final two spots in the starting rotation.
So the questions remain. Will Seth Smith’s lack of experience fill the shoes of an All-Star like Holliday? Can Helton return to his earlier form? 2008 was the first time in his 11 full seasons without hitting above .300 or hitting double-digit home runs. Has Tulowitzki controlled himself and developed himself into the leader and face of the franchise that he needs to be?
Catcher Chris Iannetta proved himself last year, but can he remain consistent behind the plate? And the biggest questions each year in Colorado remain with the pitching staff. Who will fill the fifth spot? Will Manny Corpas or Street close? Do the Rockies need to trade for a top-of-the-line pitcher for the second half of the season? Will the Rockies even be in contention by the second half of the season?
With the West looking mediocre at best again this year, it could be anyone’s game. If the Rockies can play consistent .500 ball, they might have a legitimate shot. Of course, that is if they can do that.
Grab your erasers because nothing is certain. The beauty of a new season, though, is that there’s always hope.