CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Rockies look to rebound under the radar in 2012

Rockies look to rebound under the radar in 2012

Rockies look to rebound under the radar in 2012
DENVER -- If the behavior pattern of the Rockies holds true, 2012 will be a big year.

After collapsing this season amid high expectations, the Rockies head into the offseason full of needs. Their needs include a front-of-the-rotation starter, and could use another veteran to protect them from depending too heavily on talented but erratic young hurlers. Meanwhile, the lineup needs increased run production at several positions. The Rockies entered the 2011 season believing depth was a strength, but the bench ended up exhausted and exposed.

After being predicted to win the National League West this year, the Rockies won't have to worry about that next year. Their playoff experiences of 2007 and 2009 came after little preseason fanfare. Dramatic collapses happened in 2008 and 2011 -- and there were expectations last season, when the team contended until the final weeks before crawling to the finish -- when folks were expecting them to do well. In 2012, it could be good to fly under the radar.

Veteran first baseman Todd Helton is disgusted and perplexed by the pattern. But he can't help but be intrigued about 2012.

"It's certain this team plays like garbage when there's expectations placed upon it, for whatever reason that is," Helton detailed. "It shouldn't matter. We should be strong enough as a team, as individuals, whether people doubt us or think we've got a shot, to play the same way. It's hard to wrap your mind around it right now.

"But I hope we do have low expectations next year. It seems we play better when we do," Helton added.

But the Rockies aren't about to ensure low expectations by standing pat during the offseason.

After their former ace pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez struggled through injuries and inconsistency for much of this season, the Rockies -- having struck out on pitching in the MLB First-Year Player Draft the last several years -- dealt him to the Indians for two former first-round hurlers, left-hander Drew Pomeranz and right-hander Alex White. It was a sign that the Rockies want to be aggressive in improving the club.

"We understand that there could be some changes that take place," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "You don't want it that way, but we all know if we don't play well together, they have no other choice than to switch things up."

How much the Rockies change the club is another matter, especially when it comes to the payroll budget.

Colorado plays in what is considered a small-to-medium market, a condition that has kept payrolls ranking about in the middle of the pack among Major League teams. The 2011 payroll total of almost $88 million ranked 14th in baseball, but attendance is strong. Despite the poor overall record, and 38-44 record at Coors Field, the average paid attendance of 35,923 was just 18 fans per game below last year's figures.

It's doubtful the Rockies will be a big spender in free agency. They're more likely to be aggressive in making trades, although they have to be careful not to delete what depth they have or create holes while filling others. Nevertheless, manager Jim Tracy continues to believe that the core of the team can win.

"There are two different situations that evolve after any professional season in any of the four major sports," Tracy said. "You're saying, 'We need to blow this up and start over, dynamite the building,' or, 'We just need a little remodeling done to this home.'"

"That's the position were in -- we need to do some remodeling."

So let's take a position-by-position look at the model as it stands:

Starting rotation: A potential strength going into the season ended up a mess, thanks to the struggles of Jimenez and Jason Hammel -- who didn't step forward after signing a two-year contract -- and the loss of lefty anchor Jorge De La Rosa to Tommy John surgery in May. De La Rosa could be out until the middle of 2012. Jhoulys Chacin started on fire, but his weak finish raised enough questions to keep the Rockies from looking at him as No. 1. Pomeranz -- a potential front-line starter who looked good in his few big league games -- and White -- who was rocked in most of his appearances -- are still cutting their teeth. Young right-hander Esmil Rogers was inconsistent and struggled at Coors Field.

Next year's rotation could receive a boost when raw, but talented, right-hander Juan Nicasio recovers from the broken vertebrae he suffered in early August. The Rockies rescued veteran Kevin Millwood from Triple-A, and if re-signed, he could offer stability. Trade possibilities include the Astros' Wandy Rodriguez, whom the Rockies claimed off waivers in August but were un could not work out a trade. The Rays' Wade Davis and James Shields, the Twins' Carl Pavano, Arizona's Jason Marquis and Florida's Javier Vazquez are among other possibilities on the free-agent market.

Catcher: After years of tests, it seems Chris Iannetta gained the organization's confidence, especially behind the plate. His offense is still a work in progress, and hitting eighth presents challenges for a hitter who, by nature, fights expanding the strike zone. Talented prospect Wilin Rosario was impressive at season's end, but he's 22 and hasn't been to Triple-A yet. The likely scenario is Iannetta starts the season as No. 1 and Rosario plays daily at Triple-A Colorado Springs, or until he forces the issue. The scenario could get crazy long before then. Iannetta has experience and a manageable contract, and could have trade value.

First base: The veteran tandem of Helton and Jason Giambi worked quite well. Helton managed his way through back pain and returned to productivity. Giambi, settling well into a veteran pinch-hitter and backup role, provided power. Both are past their days of stardom, but the two of them equal a frontline first baseman. The problem, though, is Helton is 38, Giambi will be 41. Behind them, the next prospect in line, Ben Paulsen, had growing pains at Double-A. Jordan Pacheco, a multi-position player who showed a consistent bat in September, could be in the mix if age or injuries become a factor.

Second base: This position went from mess to potential strength. Jose Lopez, acquired in a trade with the Mariners last offseason, utterly collapsed. Jonathan Herrera, a solid utility player, did not fit the bill as a starter, and the jury is still out on former top pick Chris Nelson. But Mark Ellis, obtained in a trade with the Athletics, provided the occasional power and professional hitting approach the Rockies needed. The Rockies will have to make a decision to either commit resources to re-signing him, or save the money for other positions and hope for an in-house answer. An intriguing free-agent possibility could be one of the Rockies' original products, Clint Barmes, who had a solid season at shortstop for the Astros.

Third base: As much as the pitching issues, Ian Stewart's unproductive play and health undermined the season. Stewart tried to play through injuries to start the year, but slumped and wound up with no Major League home runs and a bunch of Triple-A at-bats. The Rockies are expected to bring back Stewart, at a rate lower than the $2.2875 million he received in 2011, send him to instructional ball, and have encouraged him to play winter ball in Mexico. They're also intrigued by local product Kevin Kouzmanoff -- whom they received in a deal with the Athletics -- and Pacheco. But expect them to explore putting together a package that could land them the Mets' David Wright.

Shortstop: Tulowitzki is simply the best in the game at his position, offensively and defensively. The only caveat is injuries, since Tulowitzki is a big, muscular player for the position. He missed time at midseason with a quadriceps strain, and at the end of year with a sore left hip, but generally avoided the big, knockout injury. Tommy Field saw time at shortstop in September, and could be an option if Tulowitzki is hurt. The Rockies would like for Hector Gomez, who has a similar body to Tulowitzki, to break a pattern of injuries and make himself an option, even if it's in a utility role.

Outfield: Carlos Gonzalez is a perennial threat to win the batting title, the home run crown and a Rawlings Gold Glove Award, but there is a nagging concern -- wrist injuries. Three such injuries cost him time this year. He plays all three spots with aplomb, but the Rockies are likely to keep him in right field moving forward. Now, if they can keep him from crashing into walls.

Which player is center fielder Dexter Fowler? Is he the one who has struggled early the last two years and needed to be sent to Triple-A, or is he the one who finished both of those years hitting hard to the gaps? Seth Smith was in and out of the lineup at times, and the Rockies still haven't trusted him against lefty pitchers, but his overall performance was solid enough for him to have a future in left field. That is, unless he is not dealt for pitching. Ryan Spilborghs finished the year with a foot injury, and Charlie Blackmon was just beginning to make his mark in the in the big leagues when he also suffered a foot injury. Depth is a concern.

Bullpen: This wound up a strength, even though the Rockies lost faith in closer Huston Street and could move him this offseason; the Mets, in a Wright deal, could be a fit. Right-handers Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle had career years and figure to return in prominent roles. The Rockies also like the work of situational lefty Matt Reynolds. Three callups, lefty Rex Brothers -- who could become the closer sooner than later -- and righties Josh Roenicke and Edgmer Escalona were bright spots even in the trying final weeks of the season. Former top pick Greg Reynolds might be ready to contribute as a long man as he still vies for starts.

Bench: Besides Giambi, the bench was not significant in 2011. Then again, most of the guys on the bench were forced into regular duty. Infielder Ty Wigginton became the regular third baseman for a stretch, but the Rockies would prefer he fill in as a multi-positional spot-starter. Spilborghs' contract expires this year, but the Rockies could re-sign him at a modest price. The team needs someone to do what Spilborghs has done in the past, which is to contribute as a right-handed pinch-hitter or late-game sub. Backup catcher is an issue, as well. Jose Morales, who missed most of the year with thumb and wrist injuries, has difficulty staying healthy. Eliezer Alfonzo looked like the answer, but he received a 100-game drug policy suspension late in the year. Nelson, Pacheco and Eric Young Jr. could be in the mix for reserve duty, but even with them the bench lacks a right-handed threat.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{}
{}