The Rockies will open the 2014 season with big dreams after a couple of tough seasons. Jeff Huson, an analyst for ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain and a former Major League infielder, has been there.
Huson played for seven teams during a 12-year career. Some of those clubs were contenders who made it close, although he never played in the postseason, and some weren't as close. From experience, he can identify with today's Rockies, who are coming off consecutive last-place finishes in the National League West, but sees a contending club.
"What every player has to make it to this point is pride," Huson said. "That pride, and that playing with the chip on your shoulder, can carry you a long way. It can overcome a lot of different adversities. I look at that as a real motivating factor this year. The combination of having the talent and motivation, those can be money anytime."
The Rockies enter the season with a payroll just under $100 million, in a division with the Dodgers spending more than twice that on their roster and the Giants having spent well for years. Yet Huson, in discussing the Colorado's chances to be a contender in 2014, noted that the Rockies aren't your typical small spenders, because they have two of the game's best players -- shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez.
Keeping them healthy and on the field simultaneously has at times been difficult. The team was close in the standings, but it fell apart after both were hurt last season -- Tulowitzki with a broken rib suffered in June, and Gonzalez with a sprained right middle finger suffered in July.
"Even if you have a payroll not up there with some of the other big-market teams, you still have to have a couple of superstars to win, and that's where the Rockies have the advantage," Huson said. "When you do, you also have to be able to mix in young players -- not just young players but young players that can play. That's what they have in Nolan Arenado, a DJ LeMahieu that flies under the radar or a Wilin Rosario."
Last year's Rockies had production from starting pitchers Jorge De La Rosa (set to start on Opening Day on Monday in Miami), Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood in the form of a combined 38-21 record. They return, although Chacin will miss anywhere from the first half of April to the first month-plus with a right shoulder strain. The Rockies addressed the rotation by trading with Oakland for lefty Brett Anderson, the A's Opening Day starter last year. If righty Juan Nicasio shows the improvement the Rockies want and the rotation is healthy, Colorado can dream of 2009, when a mostly healthy rotation went 69-50 and the team went to the playoffs.
In trading for lefty Franklin Morales (from the Red Sox) and righty Jordan Lyles (from the Astros), watching southpaw Christian Friedrich return to health from a back injury (he'll start the year in Triple-A Colorado Spring to become reaccustomed to game action) and having top right-handed prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler -- Nos. 1 and 3, according to MLB.com -- display their talent in Spring Training, there is depth that has been lacking at times.
"You think back to '09 and the staff was pretty healthy, but in 2007, [when the Rockies went to the World Series], we had injuries, and Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales came up and pitched well at the end of the season," Huson said. "You need guys who can step in for three or four starts or whatever it may be. Plus, you look at some of the power arms that they have, as opposed to finesse guys, because power works at Coors Field."
One place the Rockies can overcome the payroll disadvantage is in the bullpen, if their young power pitchers can produce.
The Rockies have just four relievers who have reached arbitration or free agency (not counting Morales, who could end up in the bullpen if he doesn't start), and they'll be paid a total of $13.7 million. The keys to the Rockies' bullpen success could lie with their younger relievers, such as lefty Rex Brothers -- who will be the closer when right-hander LaTroy Hawkins is overused or the matchup works that way -- and righties Chad Bettis and Adam Ottavino.
The Rockies have increased the number of power pitchers with the addition of free agents Hawkins and lefty Boone Logan, with Brothers and Wilton Lopez returning and with Bettis demonstrating quick development. Colorado also has former Reds setup man Nick Masset, under a Minor League contract, regaining health after missing the past two years from a right shoulder injury.
"The Rockies see the value in those power arms late in the game," Huson said. "If you have a guy throwing 94-97, he has a greater margin for error than a guy who throws 89-92. To have three or four guys on the back side, that makes it better for the manager. There are more options."
With injuries to the starters last year, several young performers were pressed into extensive duty. There was success, but there were games when their efforts simply weren't enough. Many of those players are back this season, and will need to take the next step if they're to be contributors.
"The game has changed to where you really don't have guys playing every day -- last year, the average was 135 games played, so you don't have the Cal Ripkens," Huson said. "You need to be able to put guys in the starting lineup, not just to fill the spot but produce. I think about guys like Jamey Carroll [an infielder now with the Nationals who was a sparkplug on the 2007 Rockies], where if you needed him, you could play him every day.
"Someone like Charlie Culberson reminds me of Jamey Carroll in that he can play all the positions, he has speed and he can contribute with the bat. If you need him in the outfield in an emergency, he can do it. Or you could have someone like Josh Rutledge, who showed what he could do two years ago when Tulo was out. Last year, he struggled, but sometimes you learn more about yourself and you're ready when the opportunity arises again."