Rox likely to avoid big splash in free agency

Rox likely to avoid big splash in free agency

DENVER -- Status quo would be just fine for the Rockies, but the ultimate decision on that belongs with free-agent left-handed pitcher Jorge De La Rosa.

With free agency now open, De La Rosa has become eligible to sign with any club. General manager Dan O'Dowd said this week he will not be commenting on specifics about the De La Rosa negotiations. But clearly this is a rarity in recent years -- the Rockies trying to retain a key free agent while competing with offers from other clubs.

Even with starting pitching, which is at a premium for the Rockies, the club has stayed out of competition for their own free agents. For example, Darren Oliver in 2003, Shawn Estes in 2004 and Jason Marquis in 2009 all finished in double figures in wins, but the Rockies weren't willing to bid high to keep them. Oliver returned, but was released in Spring Training. The club preferred to sign their organization products to multiyear deals before they reached free agency.

De La Rosa falls into a different category. He isn't an organization product, but he might as well be. Five other Major League organizations had him, but he found success only with the Rockies, going 34-24 with a 4.49 ERA in 81 games, 75 starts. He went 16-9 with a 4.38 ERA in 2009 and despite missing 12 starts with a middle finger injury finished 2010 8-7 with a 4.22 ERA.

De la Rosa, who became a strong No. 2 to right-handed ace Ubaldo Jimenez in the Rockies rotation, has 434 strikeouts in 436 2/3 innings in a Rockies uniform. De La Rosa's 8.95 strikeouts per nine innings for the Rockies rank tops among starters and second-best among pitchers with at least 200 innings (behind former closer Brian Fuentes) in club history.

What would happen should the Rockies be outbid for De La Rosa?

Righty Jhoulys Chacin, whom the club has broken in gradually, set a club rookie record for strikeouts in 2010 with 138 and could have a future at the front of the rotation. For now, however, if De La Rosa leaves, the Rockies will need for right-handers Aaron Cook, a onetime staff ace who battled injuries and inconsistency, and Jason Hammel, who had a strong run through midseason but struggled with shoulder fatigue at the end, to have solid wire-to-wire years to cover for De La Rosa's absence.

The Rockies can prevent that with a winning offer.

De La Rosa made $5.6 million in 2010. Lefty Ted Lilly's new three-year, $33 million deal with the Dodgers, which calls for $7.5 million in salary and bonuses, could have an effect on De La Rosa's offers when he tests the open market.

No doubt the way the Rockies brought out the best in De La Rosa after he had less-than-rousing results with five other organizations is a factor. But he also is expected to at least look at the open market. It could take awhile, since De La Rosa might be seen as a No. 2 option for a team looking for a lefty but unable to sign ace Cliff Lee.

The Rockies also didn't pick up a $7 million option for Jeff Francis, their one-time ace who battled injuries over the last three years. Still, the Rockies value his leadership and will try to sign him at a lower dollar figure. The Rockies also could re-sign catcher Miguel Olivo. The club traded him to the Blue Jays on Thursday for cash considerations or a player to be named, rather than pick up a $2.5 million option. However, the Jays didn't claim the option, either, and the Rockies are expected to at last consider re-signing him.

The Rockies also need a versatile right-handed bat and bullpen help. In both cases, there are internal candidates. Even if the Rockies land a free agent, don't expect them to pursue a front-line player. This will remain a homegrown team, since the team's strategy is to win with depth.

"You never can anticipate what's going to happen during a season and you never can have too much depth in any area," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said recently. "Through 162 games, any lack of depth you have will be exposed."

Contract issues
Free agents: LHP Joe Beimel, LHP Jorge De La Rosa, RHP Octavio Dotel, LHP Jeff Francis, 1B Jason Giambi, 3B Melvin Mora, C Miguel Olivo, OF Jay Payton

Arbitration eligible: INF Clint Barmes, RHP Matt Belisle, RHP Manny Delcarmen, RHP Jason Hammel, INF Ian Stewart.

Non-tender possibilities: Barmes.

Areas of need
Starting rotation: The Rockies will try, within reason, to retain De La Rosa, but all it takes for a team to go all out and throw a five-year deal on the table to force Colorado to look at other options. If the Rockies lose De La Rosa, expect them to replace him with a solid but inexpensive veteran and lean on homegrown youth to take a forward step.

Right-handed hitter: The biggest offensive need is a corner bat, preferably a right-handed one with power. That will allow them to rest veteran first baseman Todd Helton and protect themselves in case third baseman Ian Stewart or corner outfielder Seth Smith struggle the way they did in 2010. The first potential free-agent name to surface was Victor Martinez, who could help at catcher as well as first base. Melvin Mora, who filled the right-handed job last year, is open to returning. So is left-handed-hitting vet Jason Giambi.

Second base: Barmes lost his starting job at second base toward the end of the season. The Rockies will try to retain him, but it's possible he'll land elsewhere as a potential starter. However, the Rockies aren't expected to look elsewhere. Eric Young Jr. gets the first shot, but Jonathan Herrera proved to be a good defender and capable bat-handler last year, and former top pick Chris Nelson demonstrated potential at the end of the regular season.

Catcher: Organization product Chris Iannetta struggled early and found himself in Triple-A. He had his moments but fell short of expectations in the first year of a three-year, $8.35 million contract. Speculation at the end of the regular season centered on the Rockies possibly trading Iannetta, but the hiring of hitting coach Carney Lansford -- who worked well with Iannetta in 2007 at Triple-A Colorado Springs -- quelled that. But anything could happen, such as a deal involving Iannetta, a bold move for a bona fide starter or an attempt to sign a solid catcher and have Iannetta compete with him.

Bullpen: It hurts the Rockies that reliever and former closer Manuel Corpas will miss 2011 because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. The Rockies will look for bargains in free agency and trades, but the answers could be on the roster. Belisle proved worthy of late-innings work last season, and righty Matt Daley could be a big help if he shakes the shoulder tightness issues that hampered him in 2010. Matt Reynolds, who pitched well in a late-season callup, is an inexpensive left-handed option.

2011 payroll: The Rockies' Opening Day payroll in 2010 was just under $84.3 million, and it'll remain around that figure in 2011. There is some flexibility, since Helton restructured his contract to trim $6 million off his 2011 earnings. The Rockies have several players with multiyear contracts but have kept the 2011 raises modest. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki's salary goes from $3.3 million to $5.5 million and Jimenez goes from $1.25 million to $2.8 million. Otherwise, no player gets a raise of more than $1 million.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Keep track of @harding_at_mlb on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.