CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Healthy lineup can lift Rockies to greater heights

Healthy lineup can lift Rockies to greater heights

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- CarGo and Tulo are together again.

That simple statement doesn't solve the Rockies' biggest issue, starting pitching. But it goes a long way toward explaining why Colorado expects improvement over last year's 64-98 finish, and it's one reason the club believes dramatic improvement is possible.

More

Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez batting third and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hitting cleanup are reasons the Rockies, regardless of their record or place in the standings, perennially have the most feared lineup in the National League West. They weren't together much of last year, as Tulowitzki missed all but 47 games with a left groin injury, but Colorado still managed to lead the NL in batting average and hits, and it finished second in slugging percentage.

But according to the Denver Post, citing STATS, Inc., since Gonzalez joined the Rockies during the 2009 season, the team is 178-154 (.536) with both in the lineup and 113-150 (.430) when they aren't together. Add those to a lineup that also has veterans Todd Helton and Michael Cuddyer healthy after being slowed by injury last year, leadoff man Dexter Fowler coming off a career year and catcher Wilin Rosario ready to follow up a rookie season in which he hit 28 home runs, and suddenly a high-scoring offense looks even more potent.

"Hopefully, we don't have to deal with him hitting by himself or me hitting by myself -- we don't have to worry about that," Tulowitzki said.

Offensively, at least, the Rockies can attack rather than worry.

New manager Walt Weiss, who replaced Jim Tracy during the offseason, sees a lineup with more power and speed than it displayed last season. The new offense hopes to score big at home, both with hitting and with aggression on the basepaths.

"It's one of the biggest home-field advantages in all of baseball," said Weiss, who is looking for crisp execution on the road, where Colorado doesn't hit as well or score as well as at hitter-friendly Coors Field. "Opposing pitchers, a lot of them feel vulnerable right away because of the park. We're just trying to take advantage of that and expose that."

Giants ace Matt Cain isn't taking the Rockies lightly.

"They definitely should be thought of, with a lineup like that," Cain said. "You know they're going to hit and score some runs. They have a lot of guys over there who know what they're doing. I think if teams don't pay attention to them, that's going to be a big mistake."

Weiss spent much of Spring Training learning his players, both those who would be on the club and those who could be on it in the future. But on Monday, he started a lineup that resembled what he'll use during the regular season. The result was 26 hits in an 18-4 thrashing of the Indians. Cuddyer and third baseman Chris Nelson homered. Second baseman Josh Rutledge and Nelson, both of whom had struggled during the spring after encouraging performances last year, had big games. Beyond the power, steady hitting and the ability to advance baserunners throughout the lineup were eye-opening developments.

"I don't think we're going to do that every night, but we're going to be a good offensive club," Weiss said.

The Rockies also believe a healthier lineup will help a defense that led the Majors in errors last season. Much of that could improve simply with the experience of Rosario, who had 21 passed balls and 13 errors during a season in which he was forced into the Majors without having played at the Triple-A level. Weiss believes Colorado can find happiness up the middle with rangy, outstanding defenders in Tulowitzki and Fowler at two of the positions, and youngsters Rosario and Rutledge at the others.

"When you talk about the youth in Rosario and Rutledge, they're two dynamic athletes," Weiss said. "Overall, there's a nice mix of veteran players and youthful players on our roster. It's not a concern."

The return of Helton, a perennial threat to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award when he was in his prime, is another boon to the lineup. Helton underwent right hip surgery last August and missed the rest of the season. When he's resting, as is the plan this year, the versatile Cuddyer can move from right field to first.

"No question, we didn't put the team that we felt like we were going to leave Spring Trianing with ... on the field very often because of the injuries and whatever the case may be," Cuddyer said.

The biggest problem last season was the pitching was considered questionable going in, and it had more than its fair share of injuries. The thin rotation led to an experiment with a four-man rotation and a tight pitch count, which led the Rockies to overwork their talented bullpen to the point that it set a Major League record for relief innings pitched at 657, blowing away the previous mark of 601 1/3 by the 2003 Rangers.

Three key starters are coming off abbreviated seasons -- Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin, who missed nearly five months with nerve damage in the right side of his chest; Jorge De La Rosa, who had left elbow surgery in June 2011 and didn't return until near the end of last season; and righty Juan Nicasio, who suffered a season-ending right knee injury last August.

The team is dependent on the talent of the trio but is hoping for a lift from a pair of knowledgeable vets -- lefty Jeff Francis, 32, and righty Jon Garland, 33. Both throw sub-90-mph fastballs, but Francis has deep experience at Coors Field. Garland, who missed last season recovering from right shoulder surgery but proved healthy in Mariners camp before joining the Rockies late in the spring, has the ground-ball history Colorado sought in a veteran.

Weiss, a former shortstop, has implored his pitchers to do what they can to induce grounders to set up double plays.

"Walt says every morning when we go over this, 'This is not something that every other team isn't saying,'" Francis said. "'This is something that pitchers do. We're just emphasizing it a little more, putting a little more focus on it. This is a pillar of being a Major League pitcher, throwing the ball down and getting guys to hit the ball on the ground.'

"It's helping me out there. It's making your job simpler. If you keep the ball down there better, they'll hit the ball on the ground."

If their pitching is better, maybe the Rockies and their fans can enjoy the reuniting of Tulowitzki, a two-time All-Star, and Gonzalez, who made his first trip to the Midsummer Classic last year. How good could these two be together?

In September 2010, Tulowitzki hit .322 with 15 home runs and 40 RBIs. Only Babe Ruth in 1927 had a better September in terms of homers and RBIs. In the same month, Gonzalez hit for a higher average -- .393 -- and finished as the NL batting champ. He did so with a painful thumb and wrist injury that limited his power.

"I played last year for the first time in the All-Star Game, and I'm not kidding, he's the best player I've ever played with," Gonzalez said of Tulowitzki. "He's a beast. He plays this game with passion but at the same time he plays this game the right way, hard. You have no choice but to follow and do the same thing."

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.

Less