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Rockies seek more improvement at Winter Meetings

Rockies seek more improvement at Winter Meetings

Rockies seek more improvement at Winter Meetings

DENVER -- The Rockies made two headline-grabbing moves this week and have a chance during the Winter Meetings starting Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to weigh how they'll fill their remaining holes.

The Rockies made progress toward a two-year, $12.5 million deal with free-agent first baseman Justin Morneau and obtained two younger players in right-handed starting pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes from the Astros for center fielder Dexter Fowler. These came on the heels of signing veteran right-hander LaTroy Hawkins for one year at $2.5 million with a 2015 club option.

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Those are the beginning steps in trying to improve a club that has finished last in the National League West the last two seasons, including 74-88 in 2013 despite having three All-Star Game starters in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and outfielders Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer. If anything, the 2013 record shows the Rockies need more than a few star players. Manager Walt Weiss said the Rockies are righting themselves.

"I like the makeup of the ballclub," Weiss said. "I like that when you go up and down the roster, you see a lot of guys that compete very well. I talked a lot about that last year with our club, how important that is to us. Of course, we're not done yet putting this club together but I like the direction we're heading."

Of course, this week has shown that teams are willing to jump on trades and signings well before the annual Winter Meetings get-together, so anything can happen. But here's where the Rockies stand with the meetings approaching.

Club needs

Rotation: For the first time in their 21 seasons, the Rockies had three starting pitchers with ERAs under 4.00 -- Tyler Chatwood at 3.15, Jhoulys Chacin at 3.47 and Jorge De La Rosa at 3.49. The trio went 38-21 and the Rockies were 49-32 in their starts -- for a .605 winning percentage, which would have won any division in the Majors.

It only goes to show how much depth a rotation needs.

The Rockies are expecting growth from righty Juan Nicasio, who went 9-9 but had a 5.14 ERA and saw the team go 13-18 in his 31 starts in his first full and healthy season. That left the club 12-38 in games not started by Chatwood, Chacin, De La Rosa and Nicasio.

Chacin and De La Rosa are the rotation's leaders and Chatwood's development leaves him solid for the No. 3 slot. Nicasio has the inside shot at the fourth spot and is part of a youthful group of contenders -- along with Lyles and left-handers Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich -- for the final two jobs. But it begs the question whether the Rockies need to bring in a proven starter to diminish the reliance on the youth.

Also, how will the Rockies address the need? Last year they went with rebound candidates Jeff Francis, Jon Garland and Roy Oswalt with poor results. Will they seek a higher-level free agent or a veteran in a trade?

There are some possibilities, such as lefty Paul Maholm, who has had a high ground-ball rate in his effective seasons, and veteran righty Bartolo Colon, who could be cost-prohibitive. One-time Colorado right-hander Jason Hammel, who credits Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright for helping him develop mental toughness, is on the market, after battling right elbow inflammation last season. This is an area in which the Rockies could look to make a trade, although they'll have to make a difficult decision and deal a prospect.

Bullpen: The Rockies have Hawkins and left-hander Rex Brothers, who earned 19 saves last season when Rafael Betancourt was beset by injury. Hawkins replaces Betancourt, who underwent Tommy John surgery and is a free agent. But do the Rockies need another late-innings right-handed arm?

Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez each were used heavily, and both had long periods of struggle. The Rockies are counting on bounce-back seasons from both and have some in-house candidates. But at times this offseason, the club has expressed a desire for another power arm.

Bench: Rockies reserves were some of the least productive in baseball last year. But part of that was because injuries forced younger players into the starting lineup. But even if the regulars are healthy, the Rockies seem to be in need of a right-handed bat.

The pending signing of Morneau offers help from the left side on days when he's out of the lineup. From the right side, Barnes put up good numbers against lefty pitchers with the Astros.

Leadoff hitter: For now, outfielders vying for the left-field job -- Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, who played well late last year, plus Barnes and Charlie Culberson -- or possibly a second baseman -- DJ LeMahieu or, if he rebounds from a rough 2013, Josh Rutledge -- are contenders for the job vacated by Fowler. Gonzalez also is intriguing but it would leave a hole in the middle of the lineup.

Who they can trade if necessary

The dream Hot Stove move would have been to deal Tulowitzki for multiple talented players. The idea of dealing him to the Cardinals for a young pitcher (Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller ), a power corner bat (Allen Craig or Matt Adams ) and a hard-throwing reliever (Trevor Rosenthal or Carlos Martinez ) was the big rumor going into the General Managers Meetings. But that didn't make it much past the rumor mill, and it fizzled when the Cards signed Jhonny Peralta.

The Rockies have said they'll listen if teams have a proposal, but they've also made clear that they want to win in a window with Tulowitzki (signed through 2020) and Gonzalez (signed through 2017). By not signing a proven catcher, the Rockies have sent a message they will not be dealing Wilin Rosario, who has 49 homers the last two seasons.

It all leaves the Rockies having to be creative if they're to make a deal for, say, a starter or a proven leadoff man who could play left.

Top prospects

Three prospects could have a Major League impact as early as this season -- outfielder-first baseman Kyle Parker, who was the top Draft pick in 2010, and right-handers Eddie Butler, a supplemental first-rounder in 2012, and Jonathan Gray, the 2013 third overall pick and the top-ranked player on MLB.com's Top 20 Rockies prospects list.

Two other top picks made strides on the mound -- lefties Tyler Anderson (2011), who had a 2.81 ERA at two Class A stops, and Tyler Matzek, who spent last year at Double-A Tulsa with mixed results as a starter but showed promise as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League. Matzek was added to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Rule 5 Draft

Once the team completes talks with Morneau and he makes the contract official by passing a physical, the Rockies will have just one spot on the 40-man roster. Considering that they'd have to clear room if they addressed more than one of their needs, much would have to happen before the Rockies use a Rule 5 Major League pick.

Big contracts they could unload

The Rockies' desire to try to win with Tulowitzki (owed $134 million through 2020) and Gonzalez (owed $63.5 million through 2017) means it doesn't look as if they're looking to dump salary. They saved some money by dealing Fowler, due $7.35 million this year with another arbitration year pending, for two pre-arbitration players and signing Morneau.

Payroll summary

Rockies CEO Dick Monfort has said he is willing to stretch the payroll to around $95 million for 2014. The amount committed to signed players and the expected plus the projected salaries of arbitration-eligible players come to approximately $76.8 million. This doesn't count the players with low service time whose salaries are set based on service time. The Rockies will have to determine if there is room to fulfill one of their needs.

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

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