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Weiss exudes optimism entering second year at helm

Weiss exudes optimism entering second year at helm

Weiss exudes optimism entering second year at helm

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- During an offseason in which the Rockies have been more aggressive than usual in player moves and have at least one more decision to make, manager Walt Weiss believes it's all right to dream.

"Well, it'd probably surprise a lot of people, but not me," Weiss said Wednesday during his session with the media during the Winter Meetings. "It's tough. It can be done. We're going to have to go worst to first, and then it's been done before."

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OK, this hasn't been the 2000 Winter Meetings, where the Rockies spent $172.5 million on pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle (and didn't get a winning season to show for it). And the Rockies aren't the Red Sox, who pulled off the difficult feat of finishing last in the American League East in 2012 then performed to their talent level in 2013 and won the World Series.

But Weiss, heading into his second season as the Rockies' manager in the first year of a new three-year deal, talked about all the wonderful things possible with an improved rotation, more bullpen depth and health from the core of the lineup. The Rockies had decent starting pitching in 2013, but dealt with long injury-related absences from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and center fielder Carlos Gonzalez, as well as recurring and bullpen-ravaging injuries to closer Rafael Betancourt. A 74-88 finish was the result.

But that's behind the Rockies. Weiss also has put behind him a whirlwind year in which he went from high school coach to Major League manager.

"The biggest difference is I know our club," Weiss said. "A year ago I was not very familiar, if at all, with our club. Having spent a year with them, I got a good feel for who we are and what we need to do, how we need to get better, the design of our club. So obviously I have a lot more input on those types of things this year compared to last year."

The Rockies' 2013 season turned sour in part because Tulowitzki (rib), Gonzalez (right middle finger), center fielder Dexter Fowler (finger and wrist) and Betancourt (groin, appendicitis and elbow ligament tear) all were lost or limited by their injuries.

So luck will have to be better in 2014, and while the Rockies pursue one more bullpen piece through free agency or trade, they still appear short a right-handed bat and need to settle a leadoff question after trading Fowler to the Astros last month.

But here are areas in which Weiss believes the Rockies are better:

Starting pitching: Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa (16-6, 2.49 ERA), right-handers Jhoulys Chacin (14-10, 3.47) and Tyler Chatwood (8-5, 3.15) and newly acquired lefty Brett Anderson, who has shown flashes of top-of-the-rotation stuff during injury-plagued seasons in Oakland, form a four-man group that have the Rockies confident. Juan Nicasio (9-9, 5.14) will compete with righty Jordan Lyles (7-9, 5.59 ERA with Astros) and lefty Christian Friedrich, who didn't appear in the Majors last year because of back issues.

"We started the 2013 season with four guys out of our five-man rotation missing either all of '12 or most of '12, so it was very precarious way to start the season in regards to your starting rotation," Weiss said. "We're in a much better place, and then adding Brett Anderson on top of that, I feel like that's probably one of the areas of our club where we've taken the biggest step."

The health of Tulowitzki and Gonzalez: The good news about Tulowitzki, who despite the injury earned his first All-Star Game start, was that he didn't have a recurrence of the leg muscle injuries that had been an issue in other seasons.

"The guy prepares and goes through a tedious routine to try to maintain his health and put himself in position to play every night," Weiss said. "He's had some tough luck, you know. But it's not for the sake of not preparing well or doing what he can. Hopefully that luck comes around for him, because this guy has truly been a special player."

Gonzalez has been pain-free while taking dry swings, which is a relief for him and the Rockies. Gonzalez will move to center field to replace Fowler, with lefty hitters Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson being the prime competitors in left. Gonzalez will be charged with staying healthy in a taxing position at Coors' spacious center field.

"We want to be careful -- and that's my job," Weiss said. "Not that you can prevent every injury, but it's my job to give him a break here and there and save his legs, because he is going to be running around that big outfield in center field.

"We talked about it. We'll stay on top of it. But I think CarGo is excited about it. He's going to come into Spring Training knowing that he's going to have to do that and play that position. He's ready to do it."

Brandon Barnes, who came from Houston with Lyles in the Fowler trade, handled a strangely shaped center at Minute Maid Park, and can spell Gonzalez.

Another year with Michael Cuddyer : "This guy is as good as it gets, in my opinion," Weiss said of Cuddyer, who became more of a household name by earning an All-Star trip and winning the National League batting title. "A true pro. And it's nice to see those types of guys be rewarded by the game."

Young players who emerged last season: Third baseman Nolan Arenado was called up at the end of April and wound up the first NL rookie at his position to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award. DJ LeMahieu hit .290 in regular duty at second base and was chosen, based on a combination of fielding stats used by MLB Network, as the team's Wilson Defensive Player of the Year. Catcher Wilin Rosario showed he still has room to improve defensively, but his offensive numbers (.292, 21 HR, 79 RBIs) have led the Rockies to plan to play him some at first base when free agent Justin Morneau, whose signing should become official soon, is not in the lineup.

"We weren't perfect," Weiss said. "We had some rough spots over the course of the season. But I'm really encouraged by the way we finished. And I don't even know if our record was that impressive the last four to six weeks. But I know that we competed at a different level, I felt like, down the stretch.

"So I feel really good about the makeup of our club, the personality of our club, the guys leading our club."

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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