DENVER -- Rockies fans who visit Spring Training in Scottsdale, Ariz., or turn on the TV understandably want to get early, relaxed views of the perennial stars: shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and center fielder Carlos Gonzalez. This year, fans will not see first baseman Todd Helton, who retired at the end of last season. But to look for the keys to success, it is a good idea to look at the less-familiar names.
Injuries were a key factor in last year's 74-88 finish, a second straight last-place finish in the National League West. The Rockies were active and practical this offseason, trying not only to improve the regulars, but to have better options when injuries occur.
"We're deeper than we were last year -- in better position to take on injuries when they do happen and better deal with some of the challenges of a six- or seven-month season," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said.
How much deeper?
Well, there is only so much depth a team with the Rockies' payroll model can have. The consequences of losing Tulowitzki and Gonzalez simultaneously are problematic, as seen at times last season when Tulwoitzki dealt with a broken rib and Gonzalez was hampered by a sprained right middle finger.
But the acquisitions of outfielders Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes, along with the development Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson showed when forced into action, makes outfield injuries easier to absorb. Free-agent signing Justin Morneau takes over Helton's old first-base spot, and the ability to slide defending NL batting champ Michael Cuddyer or even catcher Wilin Rosario to first provides better safety there than in the past. Because of last year's experience, regular second basemen DJ LeMahieu, Josh Rutledge and Charlie Culberson add a little more depth to the infield.
It could be argued the injuries to Tulowitzki and Gonzalez did not necessarily scuttle the season. Some within the club believe the biggest blow was then-closer Rafael Betancourt dealing with injuries all year until he was finally shelved because of surgery on his right elbow. It moved most of the relievers into unfamiliar roles.
This year, the additions of right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, brought in through free agency as primary closer, and lefties Boone Logan and Franklin Morales through trades make the best-case-scenario bullpen stronger and also give more options in case of injury.
The development of several key prospects bears watching this spring. Several former first-round picks will have a chance to impress in big league camp. If the situation calls for it, the Rockies could be reaching to the Minors to pull up a future star, rather than a fill-in.
The lower payroll and modest approach to trades and free agency mean the Rockies head into the season lightly regarded in the NL West, which has the mega-payroll Dodgers and the not-exactly-low-rent Giants, as well as the creative D-backs. But that is fine with the Rockies, whose last two postseason trips (2007 under manager Clint Hurdle and 2009 under Jim Tracy) occurred with quietly built depth and contributions from young players who made immediate impacts.
"Nobody is going to be looking at us because of our payroll, and I'm not making any guarantees," Cuddyer said. "I'm just saying we're not going to make it easy for people."
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Away at D-backs, Feb. 28 at 1:10 p.m. MT
Away at Marlins, March 31 at 5:05 p.m. MT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Is there enough quality and depth at the back of the starting rotation?
Think about it: The back of the rotation provided little all last year, yet the Rockies hovered in contention almost to the All-Star break. Lefty Jorge De La Rosa finished third in the NL in wins and second in winning percentage, and more importantly ninth in pitchers WAR (wins above replacement), and righty Jhoulys Chacin was fifth in pitcher WAR. Chacin was sixth and De La Rosa seventh in adjusted ERA. Tyler Chatwood came up from Triple-A Colorado Springs and posted a 3.15 ERA in 20 starts. To address the rest of the rotation, the Rockies sent Drew Pomeranz to the Athletics for lefty Brett Anderson, who has ace potential if he can avoid injury.
Club officials believe righty Juan Nicasio, who in 2013 made it through a year injury-free for the first time in three campaigns, will blossom. If not, the club will look to new acquisitions Morales (from the Red Sox) and Jordan Lyles (from the Astros), the finally healthy lefty Christian Friedrich (back problems last year) and top right-handed prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler to hold down the runs and give the offense and the improved bullpen a chance to make a difference.
2. How will new hitting coach Blake Doyle influence an offense that not only struggled on the road last year (as most Rockies teams), but played feast-or-famine both home and away?
Former Rockies star Dante Bichette took a shot at the job last year, but the daily grind and time away from his family drowned out his attempt to translate his experience hitting at Coors Field. Doyle comes from a different place. A former Minor League player whose brothers, Denny and Brian, played in the Majors, Doyle has spent more than 30 years training players at a baseball academy the family runs in Lakeland, Fla. Weiss is a former student. Granted, at this level, Doyle will not be teaching the same as he did at the academy, but his depth of experience -- and the fact Weiss invited him in last year to consult with players -- could give him the tools he needs to help players make the necessary tweaks.
It is a big job, which is why many teams also hire an assistant. The Rockies have a two-man arrangement for pitching (Jim Wright, with Bo McLaughlin as assistant) but decided against it for hitting. There is help, though. Video coach Chris Warren also deals with positioning, pitch-calling and statistical data, but many assistant hitting coaches teach through video, and Warren can lend help. Also, bullpen catcher Pat Burgess, Tulowitzki's collegiate teammate at Long Beach State, works with Tulowitzki in the batting cage and in his time with the club assisted Helton and others.
3. Who will bat leadoff?
Dealing center fielder Dexter Fowler to the Astros allowed the Rockies payroll flexibility to trade for Anderson and also to sign first baseman Morneau for two years at $12.5 million. But it left a hole at the top of the order -- one they never filled when Fowler was injured last year. With no clear answer, the Rockies will need Spring Training to nail down their plan.
For now the answer is tied to left field. If Blackmon emerges as the left-handed part of a platoon, expect him to lead off when in the lineup. Dickerson, who showed speed and extra-base ability when called up last season, is another lefty swinger who might have the necessary tools. The Rockies acquired the right-handed Stubbs from the Indians during the winter, but his power potential and difficulties at leadoff in the past dictate he hit lower in the order. That would mean LeMahieu in the top spot. Josh Rutledge, who lost second base to LeMahieu last year, will have an opportunity to find his stroke and earn some leadoff at-bats.
74-88, fifth in National League West
Projected batting order
1. LF Charlie Blackmon
.309 BA, .336 OBP, .467 SLG, 6 HR, 22 RBIs in 2013
2. 2B DJ LeMahieu
.280 BA, .311 OBP, .361 SLG, 2 HR, 28 RBIs in 2013
3. CF Carlos Gonzalez
.302 BA, .367 OBP, .591 SLG, 26 HR, 70 RBIs in 2013
4. SS Troy Tulowitzki
.312 BA, .391 OBP, .540 SLG, 25 HR, 82 RBIs in 2013
5. RF Michael Cuddyer
.331 BA, .389 OBP, .530 SLG, 20 HR, 84 RBIs in 2013
6. 1B Justin Morneau
.259 BA, .323 OBP, .411 SLG, 17 HR, 77 RBIs in 2013
7. C Wilin Rosario
.292 BA, .315 OBP, .486 SLG, 21 HR, 79 RBIs in 2013
8. 3B Nolan Arenado
.267 BA, .301 OBP, .405 SLG, 10 HR, 52 RBIs in 2013
1. LHP Jorge De La Rosa 16-6, 3.49 ERA in 2013
2. RHP Jhoulys Chacin 14-10, 3.47 ERA in 2013
3. RHP Tyler Chatwood 8-5, 3.15 ERA in 2013
4. LHP Brett Anderson 1-4, 6.04 ERA in 2013
5. RHP Juan Nicasio 9-9, 5.14 ERA in 2013
The new guys
LHP Anderson: Anderson was the Athletics' Opening Day starter last season, but injuries that had previously separated him from stardom returned. If he can stay healthy, he deepens the rotation.
OF Barnes: Barnes started in center field for the Astros for much of last season, and the Rockies like his defense, speed and right-handed power potential. Barnes, however, is part of a stacked situation in the outfield and will have to impress to avoid starting the year in Triple-A Colorado Springs.
RHP Hawkins: Hawkins, 41, a key setup man on the 2007 Rockies team that went to the World Series, seemed to find the fountain of youth last year with the Mets, finishing the season as their closer. A broken right index finger that marred his 2012 and caused him pain last year has finally healed. Hawkins signed as closer, but he could slide to a setup role based on matchups or if Brothers takes the next step.
LHP Logan: For the past four seasons with the Yankees, Logan was used primarily as a lefty specialist. But Weiss envisions Logan pitching complete innings, which means facing right-handers, which means a better-than-average changeup will come into play. Logan will give Weiss the freedom to hold Brothers for the ninth inning if he so chooses. Logan expects to be ready after having bone chips removed from the elbow at the end of last season.
RHP Lyles: Thanks to the struggles of the Astros in recent years, Lyles made 72 appearances, including 65 starts, in the Majors (14-29, 5.35 ERA) before turning 23 in October. He still might have developing to do. But Chatwood also joined the Rockies after being pushed to the big leagues early, and the team is happy with his development. They hope for a repeat with Lyles.
LHP Morales: Morales pitched for the Rockies from 2007-11 before his contract was sold to the Red Sox, at times serving as a starter and at other times holding down the closer role. The Rockies, who sent utility man Jonathan Herrera to the Red Sox for Morales and Minor League righty Chris Martin, want Morales to be part of the crew pushing Nicasio for the fifth spot, but they know he can pitch full innings or as a specialist out of the bullpen. If he pitches in relief, he joins Logan and Brothers to give the Rockies a trio of hard-throwing lefties.
1B Morneau: The Rockies feel a player as accomplished as Morneau, who was named the American League MVP in 2006, should be able to handle taking over for Helton. By playing 152 games last year, Morneau put years of time lost to injuries behind him. Now he will have to adjust to the NL. Morneau hit 17 home runs through August before being traded to the Pirates, but he did not go deep once after the deal. Morneau and the Rockies hope settling in with a new team from the start will help his comfort level.
OF Stubbs: As you read the projected order above, figure on Stubbs being used in a platoon with Blackmon -- or Dickerson, who was impressive at times in a late-season trial as a rookie in 2013. Although Stubbs has leadoff speed (127 career steals), he has hit better lower in the order, so expect him to hit lower in the order and try to reach his power potential. Stubbs, acquired from the Indians, also offers top-notch defense.
Prospects to watch
RHP Butler: Butler, ranked the No. 41 overall prospect by MLB.com, mixes a solid fastball with a tremendous changeup. The Rockies will not rush him, but after excelling at two Class A levels and at Double-A last year, he may be on the fast track. A midseason big league debut is realistic.
RHP Jon Gray: The Rockies' top Draft pick last year, Gray displayed an advanced ability to mix pitches in his first half-season in pro ball. Gray appears to have the talent to ascend quickly. A trip to the Majors by the end of the season is not out of the question.
LHP Tyler Matzek: A first-rounder in 2009 as a high-school pitcher, Matzek struggled through much of his career as a starter. But strong work in the Arizona Fall League out of the bullpen has made him a viable option to help the big league club sometime during the season.
OF-1B Kyle Parker: Parker, a first-rounder in 2010, did not produce in Major League camp last year, but he showed his potential when it counted at Double-A Tulsa -- .836 OPS, 23 home runs and 23 doubles. He could be an injury away from his big league chance -- and could end up an impact bat.
On the rebound
RHP Matt Belisle: Belisle made 230 appearances from 2010-12 while keeping a sub-4.00 ERA each season. But Belisle struggled toward the end of last season and finished 5-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 72 appearances. Belisle's analysis was that he had become predictable last year, and he vowed to change that. Many high-use pitchers have fatigued from pitching so many games at Coors Field, but Belisle insisted that being tired was not the issue.
LHP Friedrich: Friedrich received high marks for his ability to mix pitches when he broke in with the Rockies in 2012, although his stats didn't show it (5-8, 6.17 ERA in 16 starts). However, the back problems that shortened his rookie year kept him out of the Majors all last season. Rest, rather than surgery, has reportedly done the trick, and he will push for a rotation spot.
CF Gonzalez: A second All-Star Game and third Gold Glove Award established Gonzalez as one of the game's true stars, but the end of last season was rough because of a middle finger ligament sprain. Gonzalez spent much of the season battling for the NL batting crown, but after sustaining the injury July 7 he played in just 24 games and hit .291 with two home runs and seven RBIs.
RHP Wilton Lopez: Lopez appeared in 75 games last season, and while Weiss praised his durability and eagerness to pitch, fans lost confidence when he went through extended slumps. If Lopez can find consistent action on his sinker, he should be fine, but that trait was elusive last year.
LHP Jeff Francis: The Rockies hoped Francis would be a veteran presence, but he struggled to the point that the team demoted him to Triple-A Colorado Springs. When he returned, he spent most of his time waiting for relief innings. Now he is with the Reds under a Minor League contract.
CF Fowler: Needing payroll space to sign Morneau and trade for Anderson, the Rockies sent Fowler to the Astros for Barnes and Lyles. Fowler started last year hot, but from June on he had to deal with hand, wrist and knee injuries that trimmed his effectiveness.
1B Helton: Helton finished a 17-year career in style with a strong final homestand -- a reminder of the player Helton was before he spent the last half of his career dealing with on-again, off-again injuries. The Rockies hope Morneau is healthy enough to do what Helton did when healthy.
INF Herrera: Herrera was a popular teammate and a valuable player in tight games, but those contributions are highlighted on a contending team -- which the Rockies were not the last four years. With Herrera's salary rising because of arbitration, the Rockies dealt him to the Red Sox for Morales and Martin.
LHP Josh Outman: Outman threw hard and had his moments, although he never harnessed his tools enough to move into a late-game role. The Rockies were reluctant to deal him, but when they were able to obtain Morales from the Red Sox they pulled the trigger on the deal that brought Stubbs from the Indians.
C Yorvit Torrealba: Torrealba served as mentor last year to Rosario, alternately using a sense of humor and a demanding presence. With the Rockies prepared to go with Rosario and Jordan Pacheco as the catching tandem, Torrealba signed a Minor League deal with the Angels.