Despite tough year, Rox see better days ahead

Despite tough year, Rox see better days ahead

DENVER -- Amidst what could be the worst season in their 20-year history, the Rockies have restructured their organization, altering their pitching plans and their front-office setup, with more changes to come. But are they all necessary?

Is this a team with most parts headed in the right direction, but one -- its starting pitching -- lost in the wilderness?

The Rockies are featuring a rotation with just four starters, while going to a different handling of their relievers. They've embedded assistant general manager Bill Geivett with the club at home and on the road so he can take care of issues quickly, freeing general manager Dan O'Dowd to restructure player development.

Still, there is a feeling at 20th and Blake that the team may be as close to contending as one with a 40-69 record can hope to be, even with a middle-of-the-pack payroll. The Rockies think they can compete, even though the Dodgers and Giants made significant Deadline moves.

"It's the importance of your young guys on that bump matriculating and heading in the direction they need to go in," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "It's absolutely imperative. I say that because the thing that I continue to be very excited about is what we've been able to do offensively without significant offensive pieces."

Such optimism despite an ugly record is based on strong offensive numbers. Going into Thursday's play -- the Rockies were off before facing the Giants in a three-game set at AT&T Park starting Friday -- Colorado ranked second in the National League in batting average (.268) and third in on-base percentage (.328) and runs (513). Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez's All-Star season and center fielder Dexter Fowler's career year have kept the offense going despite key injuries. It stands to reason this team can improve with better starting pitching.

Colorado starting pitchers went into Thursday last in the Majors in ERA (6.27) and innings pitched (535 1/3, 72 fewer than the second-to-last team), tied with the Indians for last in walks per nine innings (3.65) and third in home runs allowed (96).

But is it as simple as better hitting? Those in uniform struggled with the answer.

"That's what we need to figure out, right?" said first baseman Todd Helton, who is scheduled Friday for season-ending hip surgery, and is hoping to come back in 2013 for one more season at age 39. "The honest answer to that question is I don't know.

"And if anybody tells you they do know, they're either lying or being very optimistic. I hope so. I pray so. But until we go out and prove it on the field, you never know."

Injuries also have made it difficult to rate where the Rockies are on the developmental scale.

The pitching staff, which went into 2012 without a proven front-of-the-rotation starter, has been hit especially hard. Jorge De La Rosa hasn't thrown a Major League pitch this season as he recovers from elbow surgery, Juan Nicasio and Christian Friedrich have suffered season-ending injuries and Jhoulys Chacin is nearing a return from a chest nerve problem that has kept him out since May 1.

One of the biggest injuries, however, was to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who hasn't played since May 30 because of a left groin issue that required surgery. Helton played through pain that eventually ended his season, and losing veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez for 42 games with a left hand injury didn't help, either.

"Everybody has injuries, so you can't blame it all on that, but I know it's been even more difficult for us because the injuries have been hitting the heart," Gonzalez said. "That's why it's different from the other teams. Look at the Phillies. They have had Roy Halladay hurt, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out. That's why they're at the same level that we're at right now. It's not easy to play baseball when you have the heart of the lineup on the DL."

At least the injuries have allowed the Rockies to discover some hope.

Rookie third baseman Jordan Pacheco has hit consistently for average in the opportunity that has presented itself with a couple of time-loss injuries to Chris Nelson. Rookie catcher Wilin Rosario emerged as a power source in Hernandez's absence. Tyler Colvin, who struggled as a prospect with the Cubs before being traded to the Rockies over the winter, appears to be a solid piece on the roster at first base and in the outfield. Josh Rutledge has hit .340 with six homers, 18 RBIs, nine doubles and two triples at short since being called up after the All-Star break and will get a shot at second when Tulowitzki returns.

Internally, the infusion of talented youth has made this season more tolerable than last, when pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez's contract struggles and the team's repeated fundamental miscues on offense were a drag.

"It feels better than last year, to be totally honest, and last year we were in it up to a certain point," Helton said. "The attitude is really good. It may sound bad. Everybody here is disappointed with losing. But I guess to be in the situation we are, guys are making the most out of it."

However, the nature of many of the losses leaves a nagging feeling. The inability to throw strikes or work out of situations has been an ongoing story with the young starting staff. The fact pitcher after pitcher has struggled and seemed unprepared upon arriving in the Majors is a concern the club must fix. There also have been some defensive lapses, shaky at-bats and strange decisions on the bases.

"There's definitely some instances where I get caught by surprise sometimes, when I go, 'This guy doesn't know that yet?' when I think he should know it," Tulowitzki said. "But the game speeds up on them or certain things happen. But right now is about as relaxed atmosphere as you are going to have because of our record. It should be easier for guys.

"Still, I give these guys credit. Guys are putting in the same amount of work. It's just that we haven't done the little things you need to win games."

So the Rockies have decided against making massive personnel changes. In the front office, they've chosen to move personnel to attack weak areas rather than replace key officials. They dealt veteran second baseman Marco Scutaro to the Giants for Triple-A second baseman Charlie Culberson, but they appear happy with their lineup. Pitching will always be a vexing area, but they're depending on heath and production from the pitchers they have -- especially De La Rosa and Chacin -- to be part of the solution.

It's not clear if the right answers can be found for a turnaround as early as next year, but the Rockies believe it's possible.

"It's unfortunate the year we've had, nobody really planned on it," said veteran Jason Giambi, whose voice is listened to in the clubhouse and in the front office. "At the same time, there are a lot of positive things going on."

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.