Health, pitching could shape Rockies' 2014 season
Colorado counting on stars Tulowitzki, CarGo plus bolstered starting staff
DENVER -- The turning of the calendar to 2014 is not just a happy occasion for the Rockies. It's an optimistic one.
Coming off a second straight last-place finish in the National League West, the Rockies continued to operate as bargain hunters rather than big spenders this offseason. The six key acquisitions -- starting lefty pitcher Brett Anderson, lefty reliever Boone Logan, righty closer LaTroy Hawkins, first baseman Justin Morneau, outfielder Drew Stubbs and lefty pitcher Franklin Morales -- will come in at an estimated combined 2014 salary of $24.85 million.
Some of that was offset by trading center fielder Dexter Fowler ($7.35 million) to the Astros for a couple of pre-arbitration players the Rockies believe are promising and swapping a projected $2.6 million combined arbitration bill for pitcher Josh Outman (to the Indians for Stubbs) and infielder Jonathan Herrera (to the Red Sox for Morales).
Even without the big splash in free agency, there is a feeling the team spent wisely enough to make improvement possible in 2014.
Here are some questions, the answers to which will determine whether the Rockies, second-year manager Walt Weiss and their fans will celebrate all year long.
1. Can the key players stay healthy?
The Rockies were a contending team with outfielder Carlos Gonzalez hitting third and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hitting cleanup. Both are streaky, but when they're together and hot the Rockies win. But Tulowitzki missed 25 games with a broken rib and Gonzalez suffered a sprained right middle finger while Tulowitzki was out and was never healthy for the rest of the year.
2. There is more starting pitching, but is there enough?
Already, the Rockies' starting pitching is dramatically better than in 2013. Going into last year, Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Jon Garland had missed most or all of 2012 because of various injuries.
It's not that the new rotation went through 2013 with nary a pain, but the level of concern is much lower. Chacin had back issues early last season but finished the year strong and healthy. De La Rosa has a history of hand/finger issues and pitched through a bruised left thumb from June until he was shut down in September, but it was still a strong season. Tyler Chatwood was shut down in September because of right elbow soreness but is expected back at full strength.
Anderson has a long injury history that included elbow surgery in 2011 and right ankle and right foot injuries that curtailed his 2013 season. But Anderson finished the year on the mound, and the Rockies liked his upside enough to trade for him despite his injury history. Also, don't forget Morales, who began his career as a starter with the Rockies, has been a spot-starter for the Red Sox and will be given a shot at starting in 2014.
There is talent, albeit inexperienced, behind this crew.
Righty Jordan Lyles, part of the Fowler trade, is just 23 but has pitched the better part of three seasons in the Majors with the Astros. Lefty Christian Friedrich is expected to rebound from the back problems that kept him out of the Majors last season.
But the true excitement comes in the form of righty prospects Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray, who could be ready for the Majors at some point this season.
If there are injuries early in the spring, the Rockies will be faced with once again trying to revive a veteran's career, the way they tried and failed last season with Jeff Francis, Garland and Roy Oswalt. But if this is a lucky year in terms of early injuries, and Nicasio takes the next step as the Rockies expect, the rotation could be a strength.
3. How will Morneau handle taking over at first base for longtime Rockies star Todd Helton?
Morneau was one of the American League's premier slugging first basemen in the previous decade, before a concussion and other injuries slowed him. Last year he played a full season, which was a step forward, but he struggled when the Twins traded him to the Pirates for the stretch run.
Several factors point to a better performance in 2014, if he stays healthy. Morneau, who had been with the Twins his entire career, will be with the Rockies from Spring Training and will not have that in-season adjustment period, hitting at Coors Field should help, and he is not devoting his offseason to rehab the way he has for many years.
4. Can a bullpen full of power pitchers remain healthy and productive?
Hawkins and Logan join lefty Rex Brothers, who filled in as closer when Rafael Betancourt was hurt last season, to give the Rockies power in the eighth and ninth innings. If Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez find their proper roles and Adam Ottavino proves capable of pitching in late innings, the relief staff has a shot at being dominant. Iron-clad relief work has been present in all of the Rockies' playoff seasons.
5. Will road hitting and situational hitting improve?
The Rockies went into last season believing hitting coach Dante Bichette could lend his knowledge of dealing with the home/road issue. But the Rockies struggled to the point that they couldn't win even with decent starting pitching. By season's end, Bichette had decided he needed more family time.
Blake Doyle, who has been teaching players of all levels since 1978 at the Doyle Baseball Academy (which he founded with his brothers, former Major Leaguers Denny and Brian Doyle), tries to bring stability to the hitting-coach role. There have been five hitting coaches since 2002, when Clint Hurdle was promoted from hitting coach to manager. There have been just three managers in that time.
Doyle, 59, worked with the Rockies last Spring Training, spent long periods with the team at home and on the road last season and is familiar with the hitters.
6. Is being the premier two-way shortstop in the Majors enough?
Tulowitzki has three All-Star Game trips and two Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, and when healthy he is a force on both sides. But when the Rockies struggle, often his role as leader of the team -- something bestowed on him from the outside more than from the inside -- comes under scrutiny.
Tulowitzki has played more Major League games with the Rockies than anyone on the current squad, and he has demonstrated increased maturity when it comes to handling slumps. But reaching and inspiring a disparate group of men is an art that is rare. But is it fair to point at the leader when a team falls into disrepair because of injuries and inexperience, like the Rockies did last year?
A healthy and productive season from Tulowitzki, and health and improvement from everyone else, will enhance Tulowitzki's leadership reputation.
7. Will Gonzalez become one of Denver's most popular athletes?
Before the injuries last season, Gonzalez was challenging for the NL batting and home run championships, but that's only part of the answer to this question.
Gonzalez's smile and personality have come across in media appearances and commercials. A holiday toy drive he conducted recently drew an overwhelming response, partly because Gonzalez reaches Denver's vibrant Hispanic community as well as the city in general. If he continues his star-caliber play and increases his civic involvement -- an effort that's noteworthy, considering that he has a home in Orlando, Fla., and has a presence in his home country of Venezuela -- that could put him at a recognition level usually reserved for Denver Broncos football players.
8. Can Nolan Arenado's bat, which was his calling card in the Minors, catch up with his glove, which was underrated in the Minors but turned out to be gold last season?
Arenado became the first NL rookie third baseman to win a Gold Glove last season. The Rockies are equally happy about the fact Arenado is a hard-working sort who will not be satisfied with hitting .267 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs last season.
9. Will the Rockies get 100-150 more at-bats out of slugging catcher Wilin Rosario, and will his defense improve?
Rosario has slugged at a .507 clip and posted an .820 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) over the last two seasons. But the wear and tear of catching, and his well-documented defensive struggles, have meant he has appeared in 238 of 324 possible games.
Part of the plan is to have Rosario move to first base against left-handed pitching, but if Morneau regains his hitting stroke, he will be able to produce left-on-left.
Still, defense is the main job for any catcher. To get the most out of a pitching staff that works low in the zone, the Rockies need for Rosario to overcome some flaws when it comes to receiving and blocking.
10. Will the additions make the Rockies more effective late in games?
Obtaining the toolsy, right-handed-hitting Stubbs should allow a left-field platoon with Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson. Whoever doesn't start could give the bench some firepower -- an attribute that went lacking last season.
Also, young infielders, most likely Josh Rutledge and Charlie Culberson, will have to replace Herrera, who was an effective situational hitter off the Rockies' bench in recent seasons.