Opening Weekend is upon us at last.
But baseball season right around the corner brings uncertainties for each ballclub.
Heading into his club-leading eighth season at the helm of the Rockies, manager Clint Hurdle has reached the end of his contract.
Owners Dick and Charlie Monfort have made it clear that Hurdle’s performance will be judged critically and that no Opening Day contract extensions will be awarded like in 2007.
During the offseason, the Rockies cleared out a majority of Hurdle’s coaching staff and brought in veterans like Jim Tracy (bench coach) and former Rockies manager Don Baylor (hitting coach).
A couple wrong moves by Hurdle and one of these guys could be getting a promotion.
Baylor led the Rockies for their first six years of existence before being fired for Jim Leyland, who had just led the Florida Marlins to their first World Series championship two years prior.
Leyland quickly fled, and then Buddy Bell managed for two years and a few games, and then Hurdle replaced him less than a month into the 2002 season.
Baylor, whose career coaching record in Colorado stands at 440-469 (.484), has the highest winning percentage in club history.
His tenure with the Rockies includes the team’s first trip to the postseason, a 1995 Wild Card berth, and a Manager of the Year award.
In his final season with the Rockies, he guided them to a fourth-place finish and a 77-85 record. With this statistic, it doesn’t bother me that he was replaced soon after.
What does bother me, however, is the fact that the Rockies have bettered that record just twice in the 10 seasons since, and just one time under Hurdle’s reign.
Despite his sub-.500 career record, Baylor is the best manager the Rockies have ever had. He has been so instrumental to the club that he was even selected to be an honorary member on Hurdle’s staff at the 2008 All-Star Game because of his influence to the ballclub.
Baylor has brought a noticeable amount of change to the Rockies clubhouse this spring. The team’s offensive numbers are showing evident improvements, with several players giving Baylor the credit.
The team’s offense shows a lot of potential with power in the lineup from the top all the way through. It even seems a little bit like the Blake Street Bombers–the offensive powerhouses of Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, and Larry Walker during the late 1990s under Baylor’s managing.
Even without Matt Holliday in the lineup, the Rockies have known power coming from Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins. Todd Helton is showing that his back is healing just fine, while Ryan Spilborghs’ spring says that he can be a multi-tool center fielder, including a powerful bat. Troy Tulowitzki’s determination should help him bounce back from his sophomore slump, while Chris Iannetta’s numbers could top the chart among the league’s catchers. Seth Smith will get some outfield starts and even off the bench the Rockies are loaded, with names like Ian Stewart (hopefully not off the bench), and Jeff Baker.
Our pitching may be inconsistent, but the offense should be explosive. Maybe ditching the humidors and bringing back the days of the Bombers isn’t such a crazy thought.
Back in Baylor’s days as manager, he would hold The Don Baylor Show, a segment of the postgame show after Sunday afternoon games. Three kids in attendance were able to go on the show and ask the skipper a question for him to answer.
I once was lucky enough to get on the show. If I had the opportunity today, maybe I’d ask Baylor to bring back the power at Coors Field.
Baylor has been missed. Could his presence in the clubhouse result in the Blake Street Bombers 2.0?
This article is also featured on Bleacher Report.
Many probably think I’m crazy for this statement. Perhaps I am.
After trading away the club’s star player (Matt Holliday) and losing the best closer (Brian Fuentes) in team history over the offseason, it’s easy to assume that trading Atkins, arguably one of the team’s most talented players, means throwing away the season for the Rockies.
And although I’m not one of the rare few who support the front office’s plan of building from within and starting over once those players become too good and too expensive, I think that trading Atkins could bring some positives to the team.
Without a doubt, pitching has been the Rockies’ biggest struggle for as long as I can remember. With Jeff Francis missing all of 2009, this year is no different.
Even without Holliday and Willy Tavares, the outfield is stacked. Brad Hawpe and Ryan Spilborghs will be starters, while prospect Dexter Fowler is trying to prove that he’s also big-league ready. Seth Smith, Matt Murton, Scott Podsednik, Carlos Gonzalez and even Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker are also viable options.
In 2008, the Rockies used more second baseman than I can count on one of my hands. Despite the fact that none of them have stepped into the shoes that Kaz Matsui left in 2007, there is depth at the position.
Troy Tulowitzki is a lock at short stop, and many of the second baseman can shift to play either middle infield position when he needs rest.
Todd Helton will get the first look at first base, but with his unstable lower back, it is uncertain how much or how often he will play in 2009. Behind him, the Rockies could use Joe Koshansky as the primary starter.
Baker, a very versatile player, has experience at first base, while Christian Colonel, who is having a very impressive spring, will be waiting in the minors.
Chris Iannetta has more than earned the starting catching role, and although Yorvit Torrealba wants out of his contract with Colorado, teams aren’t showing interest in paying his remaining salary, meaning the Rockies will have a veteran catcher with plenty of experience coming off the bench.
That brings us to Garrett Atkins and third base.
Don’t get me wrong, Atkins is a proven player with a lot of talent. His career batting average is right around .300, he has plenty of power and his defense is on the rise.
It may seem foolish to trade a star, but that’s what makes this idea work. Stars draw interest.
Stewart has proven that he is more than ready to start for the Rockies this year. He greatly improved towards the end of 2008 and has been playing solid all spring. Not to mention that his defense would be a step up, and that he is still just 23 years old and still improving.
The Rockies need to get him in the lineup.
Atkins will most likely be gone after this season with his contract ending, so it would be ideal to get some value for him.
It doesn’t matter how we get it, but the fact is, the Rockies need starting pitching.
As shown, there is quality depth at nearly every position, which should draw interest. Many of these players are ready for the big leagues, there’s just no room for them.
Who knows, there might not be teams that are willing to give up their top arms, but it doesn’t hurt to at least give it a shot and see what’s out there. There are several teams that are in need of a third baseman.
The Rockies have plenty of talent to replace Atkins. Losing him and gaining solid starting pitching will only improve the team.
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.